Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 4, 2010

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Issue 4, 2010

This week's headlines:

Giant laser reaches key milestone for fusion
January 28, 2010

The world's largest laser is approaching the long-sought goal of igniting a fusion reaction that produces more energy than the laser delivers. Lasers are intended to do this by super-heating a fusion fuel pellet until it implodes, heating and compressing its central core to the temperatures and pressures needed for nuclear fusion.

Past experiments have been plagued by irregular implosions that wasted most of the input energy. But now researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have managed to squeeze targets of material into spheres rather than pancakes or more lopsided shapes, paving the way for future attempts at fusion. The work was performed at Livermore's 192-laser beam National Ignition Facility (NIF).

The team used targets that did not contain the key ingredients for fusion - two isotopes of hydrogen known as deuterium and tritium. But the symmetrical implosion of the targets suggests that NIF should be able to ignite fusion with laser pulses of 1.2 to 1.3 megajoules - well below its full 1.8-megajoule capacity.

Researchers spent last year slowly cranking up the output of the laser, ultimately reaching a total energy of more than 1 megajoules. Now they're pausing to mount new instruments on the 10-centimetre-thick aluminium target chamber and to install giant concrete doors to contain neutrons they expect to produce in future fusion experiments. In a few months, they will begin testing a series of new targets designed to assess beam interactions and compression. If all goes well, they could try for fusion ignition by the end of the year.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Using light to disinfect water
January 27, 2010

Getting access to clean drinking water is an ongoing problem for people in developing countries. And even cities that have good water-treatment systems are looking for better ways to deliver safer, cleaner water. Now an international research team has developed a photocatalyst that promises quick, effective water disinfection using sunlight or artificial light. What's more, the photocatalyst keeps working after the light is turned off, disinfecting water even in the dark.

It has long been known that irradiating water with high-intensity ultraviolet light kills bacteria. The new photocatalyst, developed by researchers at the University of Illinois, improves on that by using light in the visible spectrum. It consists of fibres of titanium oxide doped with nitrogen to make it absorb visible light. The researchers added nanoparticles of palladium to the surface of the fibres, greatly increasing the efficiency of the disinfection.

The researchers placed the photocatalist it in a solution containing a high concentration of E. coli bacteria and then shone a halogen desk lamp on the solution for varying lengths of time. After an hour, the concentration of bacteria dropped from 10 million cells per litre to just one cell per 10,000 litres. The researchers also shone light on the fibres for 10 hours to simulate exposure to daylight and then stored them in the dark for various times. Even after 24 hours, the photocatalyst still killed bacteria.

Full story: Technology Review / Journal of Materials Chemistry Back to top

Venus Flytrap material captures radioactive waste
January 26, 2010

Of all the radioactive isotopes left over from nuclear weapons testing and nuclear power plants, cesium-137 is among the most dangerous. The metal has a half-life of 30 years, enters the body quickly, and can trigger cancer even decades after exposure. Removing cesium-137 from the environment has proven difficult, but researchers say they have a promising new way to clean it up: a flexible, porous solid that grabs caesium ions much like a Venus flytrap ensnares its prey.

The new material is part of a class of materials made of spongelike frameworks of inorganic elements. Researchers from Northwestern University were working to create one of these inorganic frameworks, possibly one that could be used to capture environmental contaminants.

The researchers made their framework from a mixture of gallium, tin, and sulphur, which formed sheets with holes. They also added dimethylammonium (DMA) ions. The sheets stacked atop one another with the holes running up and down through the material and with the DMA ions sitting in between the layers. The researchers thought that cesium-137 ions might be able to wiggle through the holes into the heart of the solid and trade places with the DMA, which exactly happened. But when they attempted to flush out the caesium with other charged ions, such as lithium and sodium, the caesium didn't exchange places as expected and instead remained locked in the solid.

An x-ray snapshot of the material revealed that when the caesium enters, it not only displaces DMA, it also binds to a sulphur atom in the lattice. This tugs on the framework and pulls the holes closed, thereby trapping the caesium inside, like a molecular Venus flytrap.

Full story: ScienceNow / Nature Back to top

Bacteria rebuilt to make oil
January 27, 2010

Researchers from the US Department of Energy's Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) have engineered a common type of bacteria to produce biodiesel from plants. The bioengineered E. coli bacteria could provide an affordable path to greater energy independence.

The researchers modified the bacteria's genome to insert the coding for producing an enzyme known as hemicellulase. That enzyme can break down one of the ingredients of cellulosic feedstock, hemicellulose, into smaller sugar molecules. E. coli bacteria are naturally programmed to turn those sugars into fatty acids for building cell membranes - but normally, each bacterium produces only as much of the fatty acids as it needs. Researchers fiddled with that part of the genetic code, too, turning the bacteria into little biodiesel factories.

The bacteria expelled droplets of oil into the fermentation vats, which made extraction of the fuel relatively easy. The process could be tweaked to produce other chemical products as well, ranging from jet fuel to solvents and lubricants.

Full story: MSNBC / Nature Back to top

Safety in numbers - a cloud-based immune system for computers
January 27, 2010

A new approach for managing bugs in computer software has been developed developed by the Dependable Systems Lab at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. The latest version of Dimmunix, available for free download, enables entire networks of computers to cooperate in order to collectively avoid the manifestations of bugs in software.

The approach, termed 'failure immunity', starts working the first time a bug occurs - it saves a signature of the bug, then observes how the computer reacts, and records a trace. When the bug is about to manifest again, Dimmunix uses these traces to recognize the bug and automatically alters the execution so the program continues to run smoothly. With Dimmunix, a webbrowser learns how to avoid freezing a second time when bugs associated with, for example, plug-ins occur. Going a step further, the latest version uses cloud computing technology to take advantage of networks and thereby inoculating entire communities of computers.

Dimmunix could be compared to a human immune system. Once the body is infected, its immune system develops antibodies. Subsequently, when the immune system encounters the same pathogen once again, the body recognizes it and knows how to effectively fight the illness, according to the developers.

Full story: PhysOrg / Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne Back to top

'Superman' vision penetrates opaque glass
January 28, 2010

Some things we consider opaque are slightly translucent, meaning some light does in fact make it through. However, it is scattered so much by bouncing around such materials' lattice of atoms that physicists thought it was beyond practical use for seeing what is on the other side it.

By reverse engineering the scattering process, researchers at École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles in Paris, France, were able to reconstruct an image from light that had passed through the opaque paint layer. That scattering is complex, but it's also regular: the same light wave will always be scattered in the same way. The way a particular object scatters light is known as its transmission matrix.

The team worked out the transmission matrix for their painted glass slide by hitting it with a weak laser beam more than 1000 times, changing the shape of the beam each time using a spatial light modulator - the same device used to control the light emerging from a video projector. A digital camera on the other side of the glass detected the different scattering patterns produced each time. Comparing what it saw with what had been done to the laser beam made it possible to measure the paint's complete transmission matrix.

When a simple 256-pixel image was then projected onto the paint, a person simply looking at the paint would see only an even glow. But the team used knowledge of the transmission matrix to decode the faint, noisy trace that reached the digital camera and reconstruct the image.

Full story: New Scientist / Physics Arxiv Back to top

Shoes may have changed how we run
January 27, 2010

Wearing cushioned running shoes may have changed the way in which many of us run, new research suggests. Using slow-motion footage, scientists have discovered that experienced barefoot runners land very differently from runners who wear shoes. The researchers showed that runners who have trained barefoot tend to strike the ground with their forefoot or mid-foot, rather than their heel.

The question of how best to support and protect a runner's feet is something that has intrigued both scientists and sports shoe designers. This analysis, the researchers said, took an evolutionary approach to that question. The team used a combination of highly sensitive scales, high speed cameras, and 3-D motion analysis to compare barefoot runners to those wearing running shoes. Their results showed that 'shod' runners tended to strike the ground with their heel first.

But experienced barefoot runners appear to have developed a different way to prevent the pain, striking the ground with the forefoot or mid-foot. The style adopted by barefoot runners may, in some respects, be less damaging, according to the researchers. The footage also demonstrated the specialised anatomy of the human foot, and caused the team to propose that modern sports footwear may have altered how people run.

Full story: BBC News / Nature Back to top

IPad? That's so 2002, Fujitsu says
January 28, 2010

It's sleek. It's mobile. It has a touchscreen. It's Fujitsu's iPad from 2002. Sold mainly in the US, the multifunctional device helps shop clerks verify prices, check real-time inventory data and close sales on the go. Fujitsu, which applied for an iPad trademark in 2003, is claiming first dibs, setting up a fight with Apple over the name of the new tablet device that Apple plans to sell starting in March.

Fujitsu's application to trademark the iPad name stalled because of an earlier filing by Mag-Tech, an information technology security company, for a handheld number-encrypting device. The US Patent and Trademark Office listed Fujitsu's application as abandoned in early 2009, but the company revived its application in June. The following month, Apple used a proxy to apply for an international trademark for the iPad. Apple has until Feb 28 to say whether it will oppose Fujitsu's claims to the name.

While the dispute between Fujitsu and Apple centres on the US, there are other iPads around the world. The German conglomerate Siemens uses the name for engines and motors, while a Canadian lingerie company, Coconut Grove Pads, has the right to market iPad padded bras.

Full story: New York Times Back to top