Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 23, 2009

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Issue 23, 2009

This week's headlines:

First electronic quantum processor created
June 29, 2009

A team led by Yale University researchers has created the first rudimentary solid-state quantum processor. They also used the chip to successfully run elementary algorithms, demonstrating quantum information processing with a solid-state device for the first time.

The team manufactured two artificial atoms, or qubits. While each qubit is actually made up of a billion aluminium atoms, it acts like a single atom that can occupy two different energy states. These states are akin to the '1' and '0' states of regular bits employed by conventional computers. However, scientists can effectively place qubits in a 'superposition' of multiple states at the same time, allowing for greater information storage and processing power.

For example, imagine having four phone numbers, including one for a friend, but not knowing which number belonged to that friend. You would typically have to try two to three numbers before you dialled the right one. A quantum processor, on the other hand, can find the right number in only one try. These sorts of computations have not been possible using solid-state qubits until now in part because scientists could not get the qubits to last long enough.

While the first qubits were able to maintain specific quantum states for about a nanosecond, the Yale team are now able to maintain theirs for a microsecond - a thousand times longer, which is enough to run the simple algorithms. The key that made the processor possible was getting the qubits to switch 'on' and 'off' abruptly, so that they exchanged information quickly and only when the researchers wanted them to.

Full story: ScienceDaily / Nature Back to top

Laser light switch could leave transistors in the shade
July 01, 2009

An optical transistor that uses one laser beam to control another could form the heart of a future generation of ultrafast light-based computers, say researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

Conventional computers are based on transistors, which allow one electrode to control the current moving through the device and are combined to form logic gates and processors. The new component achieves the same thing, but for laser beams, not electric currents. A green laser beam is used to control the power of an orange laser beam passing through the device. This offers another possible route to light-based rather than relatively slow electronic, computing.

To make their device, the researchers suspended tetradecane, a hydrocarbon dye, in an organic liquid. They then froze the suspension to -272 °C - creating a crystalline matrix in which individual dye molecules could be targeted with lasers. When a finely tuned orange laser beam is trained on a dye molecule, it efficiently soaks up most of it up - leaving a much weaker 'output' beam to continue beyond the dye. But when the molecule is also targeted with a green laser beam, it starts to produce strong orange light of its own and so boosts the power of the orange output beam.

Using the green beam to switch the orange output beam from weak to strong is analogous to the way a transistor's control electrode switches a current between 'on' and 'off' voltages, and hence the 0s and 1s of digital data. And doing it with a single molecule means billions could be packed into future photonic chips.

Full story: New Scientist / Nature Back to top

Africa alone could feed the world
June 27, 2009

Doom-mongers have got it wrong - there is enough space in the world to produce the extra food needed to feed a growing population. And contrary to expectation, most of it can be grown in Africa, say two international reports published this week.

The first, projecting 10 years into the future from last year's food crisis, which saw the price of food soar, says that there is plenty of unused, fertile land available to grow more crops.

Some 1.6bn hectares could be added to the current 1.4bn hectares of crop land in the world , and over half of the additionally available land is found in Africa and Latin America, concludes the report, compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). If further evidence were needed, it comes in a second report, launched jointly by the FAO and the World Bank. It concludes that 400m hectares, straddling 25 African countries, are suitable for farming.

Models for producing new crop land already exist in Thailand, where land originally deemed agriculturally unpromising, due to irrigation problems and infertile soil, has been transformed into a cornucopia by smallholder farmers. As in Thailand, future success will come by using agriculture to lift Africa's smallholder farmers out of poverty, aided by strong government measures to guarantee their rights to land, say both reports.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Brain scanner for astronauts passes 'vomit comet' test
July 02, 2009

A gadget that could sneak a glimpse inside an astronaut's brain has cleared a significant hurdle, operating successfully aboard an aircraft that simulates the weightlessness of outer space. Eventually, the device could be used to remotely monitor astronauts for signs of brain injury, depression and even mental fatigue that could compromise their ability to make a critical repair of equipment.

The non-invasive scanner, developed at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, fires weak pulses of near-infrared light into the brain, then reads back what's reflected. Called near-infrared optical spectroscopy, the approach equates changes in blood flow to brain activity, much like a functional MRI scanner. Aboard a mission, the device could help explain why astronauts sometimes suffer from depression, as well as provide an objective gauge of an astronaut's mental state.

In June researchers tested the device on an aircraft that achieves periods of weightlessness by flying in steep parabolas. The flight showed the device works outside controlled lab settings, and crucially, that it works in weightlessness. The 'vomit comet' flight revealed that the device can be calibrated to measure blood flow in zero gravity, confirming previous laboratory tests that simulated microgravity conditions by laying volunteers on a table that tilts downwards by a few degrees.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Japan may add noise to quiet hybrid cars for safety
July 03, 2009

Japan's near-silent hybrid cars have been called dangerous by the vision-impaired and some users, prompting a government review on whether to add a noise-making device, according to an official.

The petrol-electric vehicles, which in recent months have become the country's top-selling autos, hum along almost soundlessly when they are switched from fuel to battery mode.

The transport ministry has launched a panel of scholars, vision-impaired groups, consumers, police and the automobile industry to discuss the matter. The panel has decided to consider introducing a sound-making function in petrol-electric hybrids. No decision has been on what kind of sound should be used, only that it should induce a response of caution, according the transport ministry official.

The panel is expected to draw up a report by the end of the year. Its proposal will be discussed at the ministry's committee on automobile safety before it could be drafted into legislation.

Full story: PhysOrg / AFP Back to top

Intelligent wireless systems monitors cultural monuments
June 26, 2009

Historical buildings and structures should be maintained as cultural monuments in their rich architecture and preferably with authentic materials for the coming generations. Also historical monuments often have a considerable importance for a regional economy. Their preservation is a challenge involving many scientific areas, especially for the protection against environmental deterioration processes.

Up until now monitoring was mostly limited to periodic visual inspection, which is not very effective, or to the registration of climate and air pollution data as a base for damage prediction. An international team of scientists led by the university of Stuttgart have now developed intelligent wireless systems for the long-term monitoring of historical buildings. Thus owners or restorers could be warned about risks or recommendations for actions could be given.

The scientists tested the new systems at five historical sites in different climate zones. Sensors are fastened to historical stone columns, recording data in real time. Measuring values for temperature and strain are sent to a monitoring computer. Among others the activity of acoustic emission according to crack evolution are measured. An important feature of the system is the intelligent data processing in the sensor node. This means that the sensors can evaluate and filter the measured data independently. Thus only relevant data are sent to the central computer.

Full story: ScienceDaily / AlphaGalileo Back to top

Vatican should learn from 'Galileo mess', prelate says
July 02, 2009

The Catholic Church should not fear scientific progress and possibly repeat the mistake it made when it condemned astronomer Galileo in the 17th century, a Vatican official said in a rare self-criticism.

Galileo, who lived from 1564 to 1642, was condemned by the Inquisition in 1633 for asserting that the earth revolved around the sun. Known as the father of astronomy, he wasn't fully rehabilitated by the Vatican until 1992, nearly 360 years later.

At a news conference presenting a new volume of documents on the Galileo case, Monsignor Sergio Pagano, head of the Vatican's secret archives, said today's Church and Vatican officials can learn from past mistakes and shed their diffidence toward science.

'We should be careful, when we read the Sacred Scriptures and have to deal with scientific questions, to not make the same mistake now that was made then,' he said. 'I am thinking of stem cells, I am thinking of eugenics, I am thinking of scientific research in these fields. Sometimes I have the impression that they are condemned with the same preconceptions that were used back then for the Copernican theory,' he said.

Full story: Reuters Back to top