Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 6, 2010

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Issue 6, 2010

This week's headlines:

Scientists seek better way to do climate report
February 10, 2010

A steady drip of unsettling errors is exposing what scientists are calling 'the weaker link' in the Nobel Peace Prize-winning series of international reports on global warming. The flaws - and the erosion they've caused in public confidence - have some scientists calling for drastic changes in how future United Nations climate reports are done.

The work of the climate change panel, or IPCC, is often portrayed as one massive tome. But it really is four separate reports on different aspects of global warming, written months apart by distinct groups of scientists. No errors have surfaced in the first and most well-known of the reports, which said the physics of a warming atmosphere and rising seas is man-made and incontrovertible. So far, four mistakes have been discovered in the second report, which attempts to translate what global warming might mean to daily lives around the world. That second report at times relied on government reports or even advocacy group reports instead of peer-reviewed research. Scientists say that is because there is less hard data on global warming's effects.

In the journal Nature climatologists call for reform. Suggestions include making the IPCC stronger and more independent, modelled on the International Atomic Energy Agency, staffed by 200 full-time scientists who produce biennial 'state-of-the-climate' reports and advise governments on regional issues. Another idea is a Wikipedia-style IPCC, with small groups of lead authors managing separate sections of the website. In response, Chris Field of Stanford University, the new head of the second report team, said that he welcomes the scrutiny and vows stricter enforcement of rules to check sources to eliminate errors in future reports; those are to be produced by the IPCC starting in 2013.

Full story: USA Today / SciDev Back to top

NASA launches Solar Dynamics Observatory
February 11, 2010

NASA has launched an Atlas V rocket carrying a probe that the agency says will study the sun in greater detail than ever before. NASA says the first-of-its-kind observatory will provide a better understanding of the sun and its role in space weather events such as solar flares.

The observatory is designed to deliver solar images with 10 times better resolution than high-definition television. Its five-year mission aims to determine how the sun's magnetic field is generated, structured and converted into violent solar events like turbulent solar wind, solar flares and coronal mass ejections, according to the agency.

The solar wind, a stream of electrically charged particles flowing from the sun, fills the solar system with charged particles and magnetic fields. Solar flares are explosions in the sun's atmosphere, the largest of them equal to billions of one-megaton nuclear bombs. And coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, are eruptions that launch solar material into space at a high rate of speed.

Such events can put astronauts at risk, as well as aircraft flying over Earth's North or South poles, and can disrupt satellite communications, navigational systems and power grids.

Full story: CNN / NASA Back to top

Graphene transistor breaks new record
February 05, 2010

IBM researchers have made the fastest graphene transistor ever, with a cut-off frequency of 109 cycles/second (100 gigahertz). After further downscaling and optimisation, the device could far outperform conventional devices made from silicon, says the team.

Graphene - the one-atom-thick sheet of carbon discovered in 2004 - is unusual since electrons can move through it at extremely high speeds because they behave like relativistic particles with no rest mass. This, and other unusual physical and mechanical properties, means that it could replace silicon as the electronic material of choice and might be used to make faster transistors than any that exist today.

Researchers at IBM's TJ Watson Research Center in New York began by making high-quality graphene wafers by thermally decomposing a silicon carbide (SiC) substrate. They then used these to make the radio-frequency transistor, which comprises a metal top gate and a novel gate insulator stack involving a polymer and a high dielectric constant oxide. The gate length is relatively big at 240 nm, but it could be scaled down in the future to further improve device performance.

The high-frequency transistor could find applications in communications and imaging, including high-resolution radar, medical and security imaging. The IBM researchers now plan to scale down their transistor, improve graphene purity and optimize device architecture.

Full story: NanotechWeb / Science Back to top

Sun-powered water splitter makes hydrogen tirelessly
February 11, 2010

Sunlight + water = hydrogen gas, in a new technique that can convert 60% of sunlight energy absorbed by an electrode into the inflammable fuel.

To generate the gas researchers at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, dip a gold electrode with a special coating into water and expose it to light. Clusters of indium phosphide 5 nanometres wide on its surface absorb incoming photons and pass electrons bearing their energy on to clusters of a sulphurous iron compound. This material combines those electrons with protons from the water to form gaseous hydrogen. A second electrode - plain platinum this time - is needed to complete the circuit electrochemically.

Organic molecules have been used before to perform the same feat. But they are quickly bleached by the sunlight they are collecting, rendering them inefficient after a few weeks. The inorganic materials used in the University of East Anglia's system are more resilient. Their first generation proof of concept is 'a major breakthrough' in the field, they say, thanks to its efficiency of over 60% and ability to survive sunlight for two weeks without any degradation of performance.

The researchers now plan to refine the system, including lowering the cost by making it with less expensive materials.

Full story: New Scientist / Angewandte Chemie International Back to top

Organic crystals promise low-power green computing
February 10, 2010

A saffron-coloured crystal could provide a step towards greener electronics. Some types of low-power computer memory store information using metals that are ferroelectric, meaning they form positive and negative poles when placed in an electric field. However, many of the more common metals used are either rare or toxic.

Now researchers at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Ibaraki, Japan, have discovered ferroelectric behaviour in crystalline croconic acid, which contains just carbon, oxygen and hydrogen.

Croconic acid was discovered 170 years ago but crystallised for the first time within the past decade. When the team applied an electric field to the crystals at room temperature they could reverse its electric polarity.

The researchers noticed a small time lag between removing the field and reversal of the crystal's polarity. This is typical of ferroelectrics and a direct indication of the ability to store and switch an electrical polarisation, according to the researchers. The finding suggests croconic acid could be used in organic electronics.

Full story: New Scientist / Nature Back to top

Google to offer 'ultra high-speed' broadband in US
February 10, 2010

Google is spreading its wings in yet another direction - this time as a network provider, offering super-fast broadband to thousands of US homes. It plans to build a fibre-optic network offering speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second to up to 500,000 homes. Google said it will compete on price with other broadband providers offering much slower speeds.

Google already has a fibre network which connects its data centres, speeds up search and lowers the cost of streaming video on YouTube. Now it plans to take this to the next stage and connect that network directly to consumers' homes. The network will be available for any service provider to use and Google is asking interested parties, from local government as well as members of the public, to sign up to the plan. The offer is part of Google's expansion into controlling all aspects of a web user's experience.

In late 2009 Google offered a service called public DNS, which it said would speed up web browsing for users. The domain name system is a series of databases that translate web addresses into computer readable numbers called IP addresses. DNS requests are usually handled by a person's Internet Service Provider (ISP). In November 2009, Google also announced that it was working on a project to develop a faster version of http - SPDY - to speed up the transfer of content over the web.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Weed genes could help feed the world
February 11, 2010

A humble weed native to the Mediterranean and Middle East and viewed by gardeners as an invasive pest could hold the secret to boosting yields of cereals and biofuels. Biologists from Oregon State University say they have unravelled the genome of Brachypodium distachyon, a small wild grass that offers big promise in plant biotechnology.

Also called purple false brome, this native of the Mediterranean and Middle East is a plant of zero commercial or agricultural importance. But its tiny, easily manipulated genetic code makes it ideal to serve as a lab testbed for understanding more complex, valuable grasses.

Brachypodium is the first member of a sub-family of grasses called Pooideae - a category that includes wheat, barley, forage crops and switchgrass, which is of major interest for biocrop production - to be sequenced. The grass family has two other sub-families, Ehrhartoideae and Panicoideae, which include corn and rice. These important cereals have already had their genomes unravelled.

Genomic research entails pinpointing genes and understanding how they work in an organism. In plants, this can unlock knowledge of, for example, genes that confer resistance to drought, offer a bigger head of food grains or boost yields of natural oils that can be used as biofuels. After identifying these genes, the next step is to insert them into the plant's code to create new strains.

Full story: ABC Science / Nature Back to top

World's most precise clock created
February 08, 2010

The new record-holder for the most precise timekeeper could tick off the 13.7-billion-year age of the universe to within 4 seconds.

The optical clock monitors the oscillation of a trapped atom of aluminium-27. It is more than twice as precise as an earlier version, reported in 2008, and was built at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado.

The second is currently defined by caesium atomic clocks, but optical clocks promise higher precision because their atoms oscillate at the frequencies of light rather than in the microwave band, so they can slice time into smaller intervals. Such clocks could help spot tiny changes in physical constants over time.

Full story: New Scientist / Back to top