Archive for April, 2010

MEMS device generates power from body heat

Friday, April 30th, 2010

thermoelectricpowergenerator.jpg( — In an attempt to develop a power source that is compact, environmentally friendly, and has an unlimited lifetime, a team of researchers from Singapore has fabricated an energy harvesting device that generates electricity from body heat or any environment where there is a temperature gradient. Their device, called a thermoelectric power generator, attaches to the body and generates a power output of a few microwatts, which could be useful for powering implanted medical devices and wireless sensors.

A prototype of the thermoelectric power generator assembled
in a ceramic package and placed next to a Singapore ten-cent coin.
Image credit: Jin Xie, et al.

The researchers, Jin Xie and Hanhua Feng from Institute of Microelectronics, A*STAR, Singapore’s government Agency for Science, Technology and Research, along with Chengkuo Lee from the National University of Singapore, have published their study in a recent issue of the Journal of Microelectromechanical Systems.

The entire generator consists of a chip with a size of 1 x 1 cm2, which holds more than 30,000 thermocouples. The thermocouples, when arranged in groups called thermopiles, detect a temperature difference between the hot and cold junctions and produce a voltage. With a temperature difference of 5K, the device can generate a voltage of 16.7 volts and a of 1.3 microwatts. The researchers hope that future improvements to the device could increase the power output to several microwatts. By accumulating this energy over time, it could be used to prolong the battery life of such as pressure sensors, and also recycle heat generated from the devices during operation. By powering the wearer’s medical implants, this technology could enable patients to avoid difficult, high-cost battery replacement methods.

Although similar devices have previously been developed that generate electricity from , the new makes several improvements that increase its overall energy efficiency. For example, the researchers incorporated vacuum cavities, a heat-sink layer, and a peripheral cavity, which are aimed at increasing the temperature difference between the side of the generator touching the body and the side exposed to ambient (cooler) air. The greater the temperature difference between the two sides of the generator, the greater the output voltage.

“The advantages include (1) top and bottom vacuum cavities are created to maximize the between the two junctions of the thermocouples; (2) a heat sink layer is on the cold side of the device to effectively disperse heat from the cold side of the device to ambient air; and (3) a peripheral cavity is designed to cut off heat from the surrounding silicon substrate, so that cold junctions of thermocouples at the rim edge of the device area are not affected by the heat coming from the surrounding silicon,” Xie explained to

As Xie added, another advantage of the new thermoelectric power generator is that it is CMOS-compatible, meaning it can be fabricated in normal CMOS manufacturing lines. This feature allows the generator to serve as a novel on-chip power source for self-powered CMOS and MEMS devices that have low power consumption requirements.

More information: Jin Xie, Chengkuo, and Hanhua Feng. “Design, Fabrication, and Characterization of CMOS MEMS-Based Thermoelectric Power Generators.” Journal of Microelectromechanical Systems, Vol. 19, No. 2, April 2010.

Source | Physorg

Sculpting a Nano ‘World’

Friday, April 30th, 2010

ibm-zurich-x-220.jpgIBM researchers have invented a low-cost and relatively simple fabrication tool capable of reliably creating features as small as 15 nanometers. To show off the tool, the researchers at IBM’s Zurich lab made a three-dimensional map of the Earth so small that 1,000 of them would fit onto a single grain of salt.

Existing nano-fabrication techniques like electron beam lithography have difficulty making features much smaller than 30 nanometers and are expensive and complex instruments. In contrast, the IBM researchers say their new fabrication tool sits on a tabletop at one-fifth to one-tenth the cost.

Nano-cartography: IBM Zurich researchers have created a tiny map  of the world;
1,000 such maps could fit on a grain of salt. The map was  drawn using a new nano-fabrication
tool capable of creating features as  small as 15 nanometers. Credit: Advanced Materials

The new instrument is a descendant of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) invented by IBM Zurich scientists in the early 1980s. That microscope made it possible, for the first time, to image and manipulate atoms. The new instrument uses an extremely small silicon tip that is rapidly scanned across the surface of the substrate. The tip is cantilevered like those used in atomic force microscopy (or AFM: an offshoot of STM that was invented in 1986), enabling it to apply nanonewtons of force to the surface. But unlike AFM, the tip is heated.

Where it touches the substrate, the thermal energy at the tip is sufficient to break weak bonds within the material. “We provide enough thermal energy so these molecules become mobile, crawl along the hot tip and evaporate,” says Urs Duerig, a scientist IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory, in Switzerland. Together with colleague Armin Knoll and others, Duerig developed the new technique. What’s remarkable about this, he says, is that it removes exactly the same amount of the material each time.

The advantage of the new instrument, compared to techniques such as e-beam lithography that involve removing material by bombarding it with particles, is that the effect is more localized. Although e-beam lithography can create features as small 15 nanometers, at resolutions below 30 nanometers, stray electrons tend to cause interactions with parts of the material neighboring the target area.

One advantage of the new technique is that it can bore down into the substrate at different depths, again at very high resolutions. This was demonstrated by etching into a molecular glass substrate a 25-nanometer-high topographical representation of the Swiss mountain, the Matterhorn, with a scale of 1:5 billion. The 3-D image was made by selectively removing material in 120 different layers.

This ability to create 3-D structures is intriguing, says Zahid Durrani at Imperial College London. “It’s completely novel,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” However, as with other probe technologies, extending the process to large numbers of tips operating in parallel is likely to prove challenging, says Durrani.

Karl Berggren, co-director of MIT’s Nanostructures Laboratory, says IBM’s instrument is an incredibly “clever and elegant” solution. “They’ve done something quite creative here,” he says. Researchers have long struggled with thermal methods of probe lithography, but it was slow and resolutions were mediocre, says Berggren. “IBM has changed that,” he says. “So making sub-20-nanometer-scale lithography available to labs that need it at reasonable cost may be the long-term legacy of this work. And it is a very important one.”

In contrast, e-beam lithography requires several steps and tends to be very expensive, with systems costing up to $5 million, says Berggren. The IBM instrument is small enough to sit on a desktop and should cost around $100,000.

ibm_zurich_x600.jpgIt is also relatively fast, says Duerig. Because the tip can write each “pixel” in microseconds, it can be scanned across the substrate very rapidly. The world map, for example, which consists of 500,000 pixels, took just two minutes to draw.

A crucial step in developing this technique involved finding suitable organic substrates. To this end, colleagues at IBM’s Research-Almaden, in California, were brought in to help find hard organic substrates that could be used as so-called “resists,” a sort of mask used in chip fabrication.

The challenge was to find materials that were tough enough to be used as substrates, but which could be thermally decomposed easily, evaporating into nonreactive chunks when brought into contact with the hot tip. In the case of the world map, a polymer called polyphthalaldehyde was found suitable, and for the Matterhorn, the IBM scientists used a form of molecular glass.

Nano-patterning: At the heart of the new tool is a tiny silicon  tip. It is able to carve
out features as small as 15 nanometers through  heating and the application of nanonewtons
of pressure. Credit: IBM

Source | Technology Review

Maido-kun humanoid robot to the moon in 2015

Friday, April 30th, 2010

lunar_robots.jpgIn an ambitious new project unveiled on April 27, an Osaka-area business group has vowed to put a humanoid robot on the moon by 2015.

The business group, known as SOHLA (Space Oriented Higashiosaka Leading Association), made headlines in January 2009 after their Maido-1 lightning observation microsatellite was launched into orbit. Their new project is to develop a bipedal humanoid robot — named “Maido-kun” — which can function in the harsh lunar environment. If all goes as planned, Maido-kun will be ready to travel to the moon in 2015.

SOHLA admits there are a number of obstacles to overcome — most notably the astronomical development costs (now estimated at 1 billion yen, or $10.5 million) — but they are optimistic about their pursuit and believe it can help stimulate the local economy by getting small and medium sized manufacturers involved in the development of space technology. At present, SOHLA consists of six local enterprises working in partnership with government-affiliated organizations such as the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

In 2005, JAXA announced bold plans to send bipedal humanoid robots to the moon. However, after recognizing the numerous difficulties that the lunar landscape poses for two-legged humanoids, they decided it would be more feasible to send wheeled robots instead.

Wheels may be more practical than legs, but SOHLA board member Noriyuki Yoshida sees an advantage in robots that look like people. “Humanoid robots are glamorous, and they tend to get people fired up,” he says. “We hope to develop a charming robot to fulfill the dream of going to space.”

JAXA plans to send their first robot rover to the moon in or around 2015, and SOHLA hopes their Maido-kun humanoid will be able to hitch a ride on the same mission.

Source | Pink Tentacle

Is our universe located inside a wormhole?

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Could our universe be located within the interior of a wormhole which itself is part of a black hole that lies within a much larger universe?

8916.jpgSuch a scenario in which the universe is born from inside a wormhole (also called an Einstein-Rosen Bridge) is suggested in a paper from Indiana University theoretical physicist Nikodem Poplawski in Physics Letters B. The final version of the paper was available online March 29 and will be published in the journal edition April 12.

Photo by AllenMcC (Creative Commons Attribution  Sharealike 3.0)
Einstein-Rosen bridges like the one visualized above have never been
observed in nature, but they provide theoretical physicists  and
cosmologists with solutions in general relativity by combining  models
of black holes and white holes.

Poplawski takes advantage of the Euclidean-based coordinate system called isotropic coordinates to describe the gravitational field of a black hole and to model the radial geodesic motion of a massive particle into a black hole.

In studying the radial motion through the event horizon (a black hole’s boundary) of two different types of black holes — Schwarzschild and Einstein-Rosen, both of which are mathematically legitimate solutions of general relativity — Poplawski admits that only experiment or observation can reveal the motion of a particle falling into an actual black hole. But he also notes that since observers can only see the outside of the black hole, the interior cannot be observed unless an observer enters or resides within.

“This condition would be satisfied if our universe were the interior of a black hole existing in a bigger universe,” he said. “Because Einstein’s general theory of relativity does not choose a time orientation, if a black hole can form from the gravitational collapse of matter through an event horizon in the future then the reverse process is also possible. Such a process would describe an exploding white hole: matter emerging from an event horizon in the past, like the expanding universe.”

A white hole is connected to a black hole by an Einstein-Rosen bridge (wormhole) and is hypothetically the time reversal of a black hole. Poplawski’s paper suggests that all astrophysical black holes, not just Schwarzschild and Einstein-Rosen black holes, may have Einstein-Rosen bridges, each with a new universe inside that formed simultaneously with the black hole.

“From that it follows that our universe could have itself formed from inside a black hole existing inside another universe,” he said.

By continuing to study the gravitational collapse of a sphere of dust in isotropic coordinates, and by applying the current research to other types of black holes, views where the universe is born from the interior of an Einstein-Rosen black hole could avoid problems seen by scientists with the Big Bang theory and the black hole information loss problem which claims all information about matter is lost as it goes over the event horizon (in turn defying the laws of quantum physics).

This model in isotropic coordinates of the universe as a black hole could explain the origin of cosmic inflation, Poplawski theorizes.

Poplawski is a research associate in the IU Department of Physics. He holds an M.S. and a Ph.D. in physics from Indiana University and a M.S. in astronomy from the University of Warsaw, Poland.

To speak with Poplawski, please contact Steve Chaplin, University Communications, at 812-856-1896 or

Source | Indiana University News

Geminoid F: Remote-control female android

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Researchers from the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University have teamed up with robot maker Kokoro Co., Ltd. to create a realistic-looking remote-control female android that mimics the facial expressions and speech of a human operator.

Modeled after a woman in her twenties, the android — called Geminoid F (the “F” stands for female) — has long black hair, soft silicone skin, and a set of lifelike teeth that allow her to produce a natural smile.


According to the developers, the robot’s friendly and approachable appearance makes her suitable for receptionist work at sites such as museums. The researchers also plan to test her ability to put hospital patients at ease.

The research is being led by Osaka University professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, who is known for creating teleoperated robot twins such as the celebrated Geminoid HI-1, which was modeled after himself.


The new Geminoid F can produce facial expressions more naturally than its predecessors — and it does so with a much more efficient design. While the previous Geminoid HI-1 model was equipped with 46 pneumatic actuators, the Geminoid F uses only 12.

In addition, the entire air servo control system is housed within the robot’s body and is powered by a small external compressor that runs on standard household electricity.

The Geminoid F’s easy-to-use teleoperation system, which was developed by ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories, consists of a smart camera that tracks the operator’s facial movements. The corresponding data is relayed to the robot’s control system, which coordinates the movement of the pneumatic actuators to reproduce the expressions on the android’s face.


Geminoid F and her human counterpart, wearing outfits by fashion designer Junko Koshino

The efficient design makes the robot much cheaper to produce than previous models. Kokoro plans to begin selling copies of the Geminoid F next month for about 10 million yen ($110,000) each.

Source | Pink Tentacle

Tsutenkaku Robo does Akihabara

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Tsutenkaku Robo — a walking, talking robot modeled after Osaka’s signature Tsutenkaku Tower — has been spotted hanging with maids in Tokyo’s Akihabara district.

In addition to stopping in for a snack at a maid cafe, the robot reportedly went shopping and paid a visit to Asimo at the Akihabara Daibiru Building. Tsutenkaku Robo, which weighs 30 kilograms (66 lbs) and stands 170 centimeters (5 ft 7 in) tall — 1/60 the size of the actual Tsutenkaku Tower — has been traveling the country to promote tourism to its hometown of Osaka ever since it was unveiled there last month.

Source | Pink Tentacle

TR10: Nanopiezoelectronics: Zhong Lin Wang thinks piezoelectric nanowires could power implantable medical devices and serve as tiny sensors.

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Nanoscale sensors are exquisitely sensitive, very frugal with power, and, of course, tiny. They could be useful in detecting molecular signs of disease in the blood, minute amounts of poisonous gases in the air, and trace contaminants in food. But the batteries and integrated circuits necessary to drive these devices make them difficult to fully miniaturize. The goal of Zhong Lin Wang, a materials scientist at Georgia Tech, is to bring power to the nano world with minuscule generators that take advantage of piezoelectricity. If he succeeds, biological and chemical nano sensors will be able to power themselves.

The piezoelectric effect–in which crystalline materials under mechanical stress produce an electrical potential–has been known of for more than a century. But in 2005, Wang was the first to demonstrate it at the nanoscale by bending zinc oxide nanowires with the probe of an atomic-force microscope. As the wires flex and return to their original shape, the potential produced by the zinc and oxide ions drives an electrical current. The current that Wang coaxed from the wires in his initial experiments was tiny; the electrical potential peaked at a few millivolts. But Wang rightly suspected that with enough engineering, he could design a practical nanoscale power source by harnessing the tiny vibrations all around us–sound waves, the wind, even the turbulence of blood flow over an implanted device. These subtle movements would bend nanowires, generating electricity.


Piezoelectric wires: The mechanical stress produced by bending a zinc oxide nanowire creates an electrical potential across the wire. This drives current through a circuit. The conversion of mechanical energy to electrical energy is called the piezoelectric effect. It’s harnessed in the devices on the next page, which might be made from the nanowires.

Credit: Bryan Christie Design

Last November, Wang embedded zinc oxide nanowires in a layer of polymer; the resulting sheets put out 50 millivolts when flexed. This is a major step forward in powering tiny sensors.

And Wang hopes that these generators could eventually be woven into fabric; the rustling of a shirt could generate enough power to charge the batteries of devices like iPods. For now, the nanogenerator’s output is too low for that. “We need to get to 200 millivolts or more,” says Wang. He’ll get there by layering the wires, he says, though it might take five to ten more years of careful engineering.

0309-nanopezb_x600.jpgMeanwhile, Wang has demonstrated the first components for a new class of nanoscale sensors. Nanopiezotronics, as he calls this technology, exploit the fact that zinc oxide nanowires not only exhibit the piezoelectric effect but are semiconductors. The first property lets them act as mechanical sensors, because they produce an electrical response to mechanical stress. The second means that they can be used to make the basic components of integrated circuits, including transistors and diodes. Unlike traditional electronic components, nanopiezotronics don’t need an external source of electricity. They generate their own when exposed to the same kinds of mechanical stresses that power nanogenerators.

Freeing nanoelectronics from outside power sources opens up all sorts of possibilities. A nano­piezotronic hearing aid integrated with a nanogenerator might use an array of nanowires, each tuned to vibrate at a different frequency over a large range of sounds. The nanowires would convert sounds into electrical signals and process them so that they could be conveyed directly to neurons in the brain. Not only would such implanted neural prosthetics be more compact and more sensitive than traditional hearing aids, but they wouldn’t need to be removed so their batteries could be changed. Nanopiezotronic sensors might also be used to detect mechanical stresses in an airplane engine; just a few nanowire components could monitor stress, process the information, and then communicate the relevant data to an airplane’s computer. Whether in the body or in the air, nano devices would at last be set loose in the world all around us.

See the 10 Emerging Technologies of 2009.






Nanogenerator: (Left, clockwise) Arrays of zinc oxide nanowires packaged in a thin polymer film generate electrical current when flexed. The nanogenerator could be embedded in clothing and used to convert the rustling of fabric into current to power portable devices such as cell phones.
Hearing aid: An array of vertically aligned piezoelectric nanowires could serve as a hearing aid. When sound waves hit them, the wires bend, generating an electrical potential. The electrical signal can then be amplified and sent directly to the auditory nerve.
Signature verification: A grid of piezoelectric wires underneath a signature pad would record the pattern of pressure applied by each person signing. Combined with a database of such patterns, the system could authenticate signatures.
Bone-loss monitor: A mesh of piezoelectric nanowires could monitor mechanical strain indicative of bone loss. Dangerous stress to the bone would generate an electrical current in the wires; this would cause the device to beam an alert signal outside the body. The sensor could be implanted in a minimally invasive procedure.
Credit: Byran Christie Design


Source | Technology Review

Invisibility cloak that generates virtual images gets closer to realization

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

 illusionmedia.jpgIllusion media can transform a real image into a virtual image. For example, a golden apple (the actual object) enclosed within the illusion medium layer appears as two green apples (the illusion) to any viewer outside the virtual boundary (dashed curves). Image credit: Jiang, et al.

( — In a twist on the concept of an invisibility cloak, researchers have designed a material that not only makes an object invisible, but also generates one or more virtual images in its place. Because it doesn’t simply display the background environment to a viewer, this kind of optical device could have applications that go beyond a normal invisibility cloak. Plus, unlike previously proposed illusion devices, the design proposed here could be realized with artificial metamaterials.

The team of engineers, Wei Xiang Jiang, Hui Feng Ma, Qiang Cheng, and Tie Jun Cui from Southeast University in Nanjing, China, describes the recently developed class of optical transformation media as “illusion media.” As they explain in a new study, any object enclosed by such an illusion medium layer appears to be one or more other objects. The researchers’ proposed device is designed to operate at microwave frequencies.

“The illusion media make an enclosed object appear like another object or multiple virtual objects,” Cui told “Hence it can be applied to confuse the detectors or the viewers, and the detectors or the viewers can’t perceive the real object. As a result, the enclosed object will be protected.”

As the researchers explain, illusion media is similar to an , except for one main difference. In a perfect invisibility cloak, there are almost no scattering electric fields, so that the illusion space is only . In illusion media, on the other hand, the material creates scattered electric field patterns that generate virtual images. Any detector located outside the illusion medium layer will perceive the as if they were scattered from a virtual object.

“Generally speaking, different objects will generate different scattering patterns under the illumination of electromagnetic/optical waves,” Ciu explained. “Hence a detector can perceive an object according to its scattering pattern. Our illusion media will change the scattering patterns of the enclosed object to make it appear like another object or multiple virtual objects.”

The new illusion media design has an advantage over previously proposed illusion media, in that it should be easier to fabricate. As Ciu explains, this ability is due to how the illusion medium is constructed.

“The general concept of our illusion media is similar to that of previous illusion media,” Cui said. “However, the previously proposed illusion media are two distinct pieces of , which are called complementary medium and restoring medium. The complementary medium is composed of left-handed materials with simultaneously negative permittivity and permeability. As a result, the proposed illusion device is extremely demanding of material parameters, and is hardly realized. Our purpose is to make the illusion media be fairly realizable. All permittivity and permeability components of our illusion media are finite and positive. Hence the presented approach makes it possible to realize the media using artificial metamaterials.”

Source | Physorg

Solar-Powered Plane “Solar Impulse” Has Successful Maiden Test Flight

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

solar.jpgWould you fly in an aircraft that uses no gas but gets energy from the sun directly?

In 1980, the very first ultra-lightweight experimental solar plane took off with one pilot on board, but the flight was brief. But just a year later, another pilot flew a solar plane named “Solar Challenger” from France to England in nearly five hours.

The maiden test flight of “Solar Impulse” lifting off at a military airport in the Swiss countryside this past Wednesday, was a large improvement on those earlier projects. It hovered over the city of Payerne for about 90 minutes, reaching a top altitude of nearly a mile and logging an average cruising speed of 44 mph.

The plane, designed by a Swiss team headed by Bertrand Piccard ,has wings as wide as Boeing 747. Equipped with 12,000 solar cells, 880 pounds of lithium batteries and four 10 horsepower electric motors, the plane weighs about 3,500 pounds, the weight of an average midsized car.

The plane took off after a short acceleration run to a speed of 30 mph, then performed some interesting maneuvers while onlookers applauded enthusiastically.  Pilot Markus Scherdel landed the plane safely proving that the plane can be handled like a a traditional one.

Piccard has set his next goal as flying the solar plane around the world in 2012. To achieve it, the plane must fly day and night without any fuel. For the project team, the main objective is to demonstrate that the renewable energy has arrived, and is ready to replace fossil fuel.

Exoskeletons and Other Technology to Mitigate or Reverse the Frailty of the Elderly

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

power_assist_robot_suit.jpg1. The Toyama Lab in Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology has the Wearable Agri Robot It is an exoskeleton for aging japanese farmers that should be commercially available in Japan in 2012 for about one million yen (about $10,000). They hope to halve if the device is mass-produced.

According to the Japanese census, half the number of the farm workers are elderly people who is 65 years old or more. Motors are installed in the joint of shoulders, elbows, waists and knees. These motors assist in movements of the wearer. We are able to lift things more than 20 kg which is needed in the farming

The current model is heavy – about 26 kg. The goal is less than 10 kg.
They are also working on improving the speed of responses and longer battery life. The suits can reduce the user’s physical effort by 62 per cent on average.

2. There are several other exoskeletons either on the market or soon to be on the market.

ReWalk is a wearable, motorized quasi robotic suit from Argo Medical Technologies. FDA approval is expected this year (2010). ReWalk™ is suitable for lower-limb mobility impaired adults who have functioning hands, arms and shoulders, as well as the ability to stand (healthy skeleton and cardio-vascular system). An approval from a physician is required

Lockheed is providing the Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC) exoskeleton for the US military

Japan has the HAL-5 robot suit which boosts strength by ten times.

3. There are selective androgen receptor modulators (SARM), which are compounds that produce steroid like enhancement to muscle but are believed to be safer. They increase the effect of steroids on muscle and decrease effects where they could cause harm such as in the prostate.

Real (as opposed to fakes claiming to be SARM) SARMs are being sold online since 2009

Various SARM drugs are currently going through different phases of clinical trials.

4. Myostatin inhibitors can have up to four times the effect of high doses of steroids. There are various drugs and gene therapy methods that are being investigated to enable therapeutic myostatin inhibition. Myostatin inhibition occurs naturally in about one person in one million and they do not have negative health effects because of it. Myostatin inhibition was probably not selected in human evolution because you have to eat about two or three times as much. In ancient times the stronger myostatin inhibited person would be more likely to starve.

5. Biotime has recently reversed the aging of human cells. They restored the length of the telomeres in cells back to an embryonic state. Rejuvenated cells, tissue and organs could be used to replace old cells in the body.

There is work from SENS and genescient and other institutions to slow or reverse aging effects.

Source | Next Big Future

Beaming Power to UAVs, Space Elevators, and Someday, Earth: The LaserMotive Plan

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Think it’s possible to shoot down a swarm of buzzing mosquitoes in mid-air? Or maybe you want to power up a remote flying vehicle? Tom Nugent is your man. The Seattle-area entrepreneur just might be the most versatile guy with a laser you’ve ever met.

lm_robot-214x300.jpgYes, a laser. Until recently, Nugent worked in the laboratory of Bellevue, WA-based Intellectual Ventures, the invention company led by Nathan Myhrvold, where one of his projects was the so-called “photonic fence.” This effort has gotten lots of media attention, most recently for an impressive demo at the TED conference in February. That’s where Myhrvold showed a video of a laser burning the wings off a flying mosquito in super slow-motion. The idea is this technology, implemented on a larger scale, could help prevent the spread of malaria or protect crops against flying pests.

But Nugent’s focus now is on something that might be more practical: power beaming. That means using lasers to deliver energy to remote sensors, vehicles, or base stations. It’s a two-way trick: the receiver has to have a solar cell to convert the laser’s energy into electricity. But as long as the solar cell is viable, the technology could be useful in any situation where installing a wire is impractical, where batteries run down, or where it’s too expensive to truck in fuel.

That’s really just the beginning, to Nugent’s mind. One of his ultimate goals is to be able to beam large amounts of solar power to Earth from space, presumably to help solve global-scale energy problems. For now, though, he’ll settle for beaming power to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other remote devices, including very early technology that could help scientists develop something called a space elevator. These ideas, in sum, have turned into a small company called LaserMotive, based in Kent, WA.

Before dismissing these projects as far-fetched, a little background is required. The idea of power beaming has been around for decades. But advances in cheaper and more energy-efficient diode lasers have made it possible to pursue the idea commercially in the past few years. Even the rise of laser hair removal products (which you might see on late night TV) have helped things move forward. So in 2007, Nugent and fellow physicist (and Intellectual Ventures veteran) Jordin Kare, an expert on laser rocket propulsion and optics who worked on the “Star Wars” nuclear-missile defense system in the 1980s—decided to make a business out of power beaming, and co-founded LaserMotive.

“We think we can produce revenue while we get experience,” says Nugent, LaserMotive’s president.

Their first project: tackling the power beaming aspect of NASA’s “Space Elevator Games.” If you don’t know what a space elevator is, that’s OK—it doesn’t exist yet. The über-futuristic idea is to have a cable anchored to the ground, extending thousands of miles into space, that could be used to launch payloads into orbit. The space end would be unattached, and the Earth’s rotation would keep it taut so a robot “elevator” could move up and down the cable, carrying equipment. Sure, this would take billions of dollars and a few decades to get working, but it could ultimately make space operations much cheaper than using rockets. That’s the idea, at least.

If a space elevator is ever going to work, it will need power at multiple steps along the way. So, at “Level 1” of the NASA Power Beaming Challenge, held last November in Mojave, CA, Nugent and Kare’s team used a ground-based infrared laser to beam energy to specially designed solar cells aboard an 11-pound robot (see photo, left) driven by an electric motor. (All power must come from the ground.) The robot climbed a 900-meter length of metal cable suspended from a helicopter. Nugent and Kare’s was the only team to make it to the top with an average climbing speed of more than 2 meters per second—their robot went nearly 4 meters per second (9 mph)—beating out two other teams, who failed to reach the top. The prize was $900,000 (before taxes, Nugent laments—yes, it’s that time of year).

lm_nasa_check-300x254.jpgThe upcoming “Level 2” competition will be held later this year, probably in the fall. The goal there is simply to go faster—to achieve an average speed of 5 meters per second, or just over 11 mph—up the same cable. The prize: $1.1 million.

Nugent and Kare’s team is gearing up for the competition by retooling its test system, which includes an 18-foot “vertical treadmill” that simulates the climbing course. They have outfitted it with new sensors that measure the forces and mechanical power from the robot’s motor, and new controls that let the team adjust the tension in the cable. Nugent says this kind of real-world testing was crucial to getting the contraption to work at Level 1.

But of course, LaserMotive also has its eye on more commercial applications than space elevators. Its first big market opportunity, Nugent says, will be to beam power to small UAVs, which run on electricity instead of gasoline; these things are in hot demand from the U.S. military, and widely used in places like Afghanistan. Other uses of LaserMotive’s technology are slightly further out, such as beaming power to disaster relief efforts like communication cells or makeshift field hospitals that might be set up after a massive earthquake or tsunami. And, in principle, the technology also could be used to beam power from the ground to satellites, military bases, or far-off weather stations.

Nugent says the company is starting off with “smaller, shorter-range projects to bring in revenue” while it builds up its technical capabilities to go to “higher powers and longer distances.” So far, its laser technology can deliver about 1 kilowatt at a distance of 400 meters, and has been shown to deliver power at distances of 1 kilometer. Nugent says the system won’t really work if there are clouds or fog in the path of the beam, but it can handle less dense obstacles like dust or rain. “That will decrease your efficiency, but won’t totally ruin it,” he says. Another issue is distortion of the beam over very long distances.

On the business side, Nugent says, “The biggest obstacle is educating potential customers.” It’s something every startup faces, of course, but LaserMotive seems to have it particularly tough. “We’re trying to create an entirely new industry,” he says. “Nobody has done commercial power beaming. People don’t understand the benefits or costs.”

It’s still early days, so LaserMotive is content to keep proving its technology as it starts to acquire customers. The company just hired its first two full-time employees earlier this year. But Nugent says about a dozen people actively work there at any given time. So far, the firm’s financial support has come from its founders, the NASA prize money (see photo of the check and winning team, left), and a few outside investors and sponsors like Boeing, A123 Systems, and REI. Nugent says he might look for potential angel investors later this year.

So how long could it be before power beaming becomes mainstream? “People keep asking, ‘When can I power my TV or car with this?’” Nugent says. “That will depend on the technologies. The lasers aren’t going to burn you or cut you in half, but they are an eye hazard…It will take a long time of technology development.”

Source | Xconomy

Hand-held projector images respond to the real world

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

POWERPOINT presentations are about to get a sprinkle of fairy dust. A hand-held projector can now create virtual characters and objects that interact with the real world.

The device – called Twinkle – projects animated graphics that respond to patterns, shapes or colours on a surface, or even 3D objects such as your hand. It uses a camera to track relevant elements – say a line drawn on a wall – in the scene illuminated by the projector and an accelerometer ensures it can sense the projector’s rapid motion and position.

Software then matches up the pixels detected by the camera with the animation, making corrections for the angle of projection and distance from the surface.

The device could eventually fit inside a cellphone, says Takumi Yoshida of the University of Tokyo. A prototype which projects a cartoon fairy that bounces off or runs along paintings on a wall or even the surface of a bottle (pictured) was presented at the recent Virtual Reality 2010 meeting in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Yoshida and his colleagues are also developing a way for graphics from several projectors to interact, which could be used for gaming.

Anthony Steed of University College London is impressed. Many researchers have been attempting to create virtual graphics that can interact with a real surface, he says, but Twinkle can cope with a much greater range of environments.

Source | New Scientist

The Singularity Is Near: a True Story About the Future

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

“The Singularity Is Near: a True Story About the Future” makes its festival debut at the 13th Annual Sonoma Film Festival (April 15-18, 2010) with a special screening on Friday, April 16, 2010.

The feature-length film, directed by Anthony Waller and produced by Ray Kurzweil, Ehren Koepf and Toshi Hoo, executive producer Martine Rothblatt (Terasem Motion InfoCulture), explores the controversial ideas of Ray Kurzweil, based on his New York Times best-selling book by the same title.

Kurzweil examines the social and philosophical implications of these profound changes and the potential threats they pose to human civilization in dialogues with leading experts, such as former White House counter-terrorism advisor, Richard Clark; technologists Bill Joy, Mitch Kapor, Marvin Minsky, Eric Drexler, and Robert A. Freitas, Jr.; Future Shock author Alvin Toffler; civil liberties lawyer Alan Dershowitz; and music luminary Quincy Jones.

Kurzweil illustrates possible scenarios of his imagined future with narrative scenes starring popular NCIS actress Pauley Perrette and personal development guru Tony Robbins.


For more information: Sonoma Film Festival and The Singularity is Near – The Movie.

Researchers Take Promising Approach to Chemical Computing

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

A multinational European project has begun work on a biologically inspired, “wet” computer designed to mimic living brain functions through chemical assembly processes and pharmaceutical manufacturing techniques. The Neuneu project, for which the EU’s Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Proactive Initiative will provide 1.8 million euros, will exploit several properties of chemical systems for their computing power.

“This is the first step towards real-life construction of an artificial chemical brain with well-defined architecture of connections between artificial neurons,” said professor Andy Adamatzky at the University of the West of England (UWE). “It will be a massive parallel computer made of lipid bubbles.”

The research will focus on building small networks and simulating large-scale networks of chemical microprocessors that oscillate using Belousov–Zhabotinskii (BZ) reactions. BZ bubbles are seen as a rough physical imitation of neurons. Both can be excited and go into a refractory state, and both support excitation waves traveling between elements.

Although the lipid-computing technique is an important step, it’s only a rough approximation to a brain. In a 2D plane, each lipid sphere can connect with five to seven neighbors, and the connections are only local. This pales in comparison with the 8,000 connections arriving at one neuron.

The project has three objectives. The first is to engineer lipid-coated water droplets, which contain the chemical medium. The droplets can be interconnected so that waves of excitation can flow between them. The second is to develop information processing architectures based on the physical and chemical properties demonstrated by the droplets. Third is to explore the limitations of these architectures.

The University of Southampton will refine the process of droplet construction. The Polish Academy of Science will model the oscillations of the BZ reactions from various chemical compounds. The UWE will develop simulations for modeling large networks of interconnected droplets. The University of Jena will translate the properties demonstrated in a lab to these large-scale models.

How It Works

The project makes use of stable cells, which are chemical bubbles coated in a fat-based membrane that forms spontaneously and uses chemistry to accomplish signal processing.

A biological cell has a bilevel membrane constructed from an array of lipid-molecule matched pairs that are sandwiched together, separating a watery medium inside and outside the cell. Each matched pair consists of a hydrophilic head that’s attracted to water and a hydrophobic tail that’s repelled by water. The hydrophobic molecules bond together and chemically attract other pairs to surround the cell.

Neuneu will employ a variation of this type of cell. A monolevel membrane surrounds each lipid droplet; it has water on the inside but only oil outside. A bilevel membrane is formed at the contact point where two of these bubbles are pushed together. The University of Southampton researchers are proposing a molecule of alpha–hemolysin to rip a tunnel between the two droplets, thus forming a channel between them.

Exciting the chemicals inside the droplets expends their chemical energy, causing them to enter a refractory period, during which they must recharge. An external excitation can then trigger another chemical reaction, much like a broken clock that ticks only when it’s jostled, then goes dormant until it’s can excited again.

The project will find ways to physically get the drops to touch and create connection points where they come together. In theory, researchers could explore different chemical mixtures for the droplets and different ways of making the channels. However, in the three-year project time frame, they will focus on proving the technology.

The theoretical research will address modeling the kinds of computing units the technology could support. Klaus-Peter Zauner, senior lecturer at the University of Southampton explained, “We want to find out if this is a technology that has real use or if it is too constrained.”

It’s difficult to make lab systems large enough to delineate these limitations, so the researchers will use simulation studies. Zauner noted, “We want to learn from small droplet networks with tens of droplets and extrapolate this to systems with 10,000 droplets. It’s not far beyond the scope of current technology, but it would be expensive to do in the lab.”

The lab research at this stage will refine the process for producing consistent quality droplets. The medical industry has developed the mass production of lipid-coated droplets as a technique for drug delivery.

BZ Computation

BZ computation is a form of chemical computing used in molecular-computation research. It’s relatively easy to prepare, said Oliver Steinbock, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Florida State University. In the simplest case, four chemicals (bromate, malonic acid, sulfuric acid, and a redox-catalyst) are mixed in water at room temperature. If stirred, the reaction solution can undergo long-lasting and striking color changes (say, red to blue) with typical oscillation periods of seconds to minutes.

External perturbations, such as submerging a wire in the solution, can trigger a long-lasting color-change cycle. This behavior is similar to the excitability waves that travel through neurons. The waves are like a domino-chain reaction, except the dominos can reset themselves after the refractory period. “The similarity between neurons and BZ systems has stimulated most of the chemical BZ computing ideas,” said Steinbock.

It’s likely to be some time before this type of research has practical application. “Don’t sell your PC yet,” Steinbock advised. “This is exploratory research that will not yield short-term applications although some highly specialized applications might be achievable. Nonetheless, the human brain is a convincing example that excitable networks can do remarkable things.”

The Molecular Computing Landscape

Zauner said the molecular computing landscape can be broken into three-broad areas: bulk-molecular materials, single molecules, and biomolecular computing.

Bulk-molecular materials, such as organic semiconductors, use soft-matter physics. The atoms are packed less densely and the structure is far less homogeneous than in solid-state semiconductors. Computation devices based on these materials uses technologies such as organic light emitting diodes. They can be more flexible and made at lower temperatures.

Single-molecule electronics uses novel construction techniques to build molecular wires, single-molecule diodes, and similar structures for smaller-scale devices. Both bulk- and single-molecule devices imitate conventional circuits with molecules.

Biomolecular computing uses the molecules in material-specific architectures. It’s the basis of cellular computation today. Researchers expect biomolecular arrays to enable architectures that are completely different from traditional logic circuits and will require entirely new programming techniques.

Neuneu is exploring this third type of molecular computing, which researchers have been exploring for some time. In the 1980s, researchers at the Biophysical Institute at Pushchino in Russia developed optical computers that leveraged biological components to store optical holographic information.

In 1989, Lothar Kuhnert reported processing images by using the BZ reaction with light-sensitive chemical waves. In the 1990s, Steinbock and his associates used BZ reactions to calculate the shortest paths in a labyrinth in a highly parallel fashion. They subsequently calculated Voronoi diagrams using BZ chemistry.

Zauner said the only commercial application of biomolecular computing so far is the FringeMaker-Plus, made by Munich Innovative Biomaterials. It uses the protein bacteriorhodopsin to create reusable media that store holographic image data for nondestructive testing.

The EU FET-Proactive Initiative is funding two other projects for molecular computing. The Bactocom project will use bacteria for computing. The Matchit project is building an infrastructure that uses DNA addressing to move chemicals. “There’s a lot of work going on,” Zauner noted, “and no one knows which techniques will ultimately work.”

Making It Practical

Neuneu might bring chemical computing from the concept stage to a practical demonstration. “There has been too much work on theory that was not tied closely to reality,” Zauner said, “so we were clear on tying the research to what can be demonstrated in the lab.”

The team has focused on techniques that have a reasonable chance of working well. For example, other researchers have made lipid-coated water droplets, but not for computational purposes, and BZ computation techniques are well developed.

The project aims to show how a new paradigm for building computers could be practical. Zauner sees traditional computer science locked into a somewhat narrow focus on certain forms of logical structures. “It’s almost as if you were to make a hot air balloon out of better and better materials, but never considered the possibility of an airplane,” Zauner said. “When we look at nature, it’s perfectly clear there are better computational techniques for many types of applications.”

Molecular techniques might be good for putting computers inside living cells — for example, to improve drug delivery so that robots could selectively detect and kill cancers. In the long term, Zauner expects that these kinds of computer will let us selectively create new molecules. “The big impact will be when molecular computing is used to make molecular materials that we cannot make today,” he said. “It will be more extreme than the impact of organic chemistry.”

Source | Computing Now

Time Lords discovered in California

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

Time Lords walk among us. Two per cent of readers may be surprised to discover that they are members of an elite group with the power to perceive the geography of time.

Sci-fi fans – Anglophile ones, at least – know that the coolest aliens in the universe are Time Lords: time-travelling humanoids with the ability to understand and perceive events throughout time and space. Now it seems that people with a newly described condition have a similar, albeit lesser ability: they experience time as a spatial construct.

Synaesthesia is the condition in which the senses are mixed, so that a sound or a number has a colour, for example. In one version, the sense of touch evokes emotions.

To those variants we can now add time-space synaesthesia.

I see… time

“In general, these individuals perceive months of the year in circular shapes, usually just as an image inside their mind’s eye,” says David Brang of the department of psychology at the University of California, San Diego.

“These calendars occur in almost any possible shape, and many of the synaesthetes actually experience the calendar projected out into the real world.”

One of Brang’s subjects was able to see the year as a circular ring surrounding her body. The “ring” rotated clockwise throughout the year so that the current month was always inside her chest with the previous month right in front of her chest.

Regenerating patterns

Brang and colleagues recruited 183 students and asked them to visualise the months of the year and construct this representation on a computer screen. Four months later the students were shown a blank screen and asked to select a position for each of the months. They were prompted with a cue month – a randomly selected month placed as a dot in the location where the student had originally placed it.

Uncannily, four of the 183 students were found to be time-space synaesthetes when they placed their months in a distinct spatial array – such as a circle – that was consistent over the trials.

A second test compared how well time-space synaesthetes and ordinary humans could memorize an unfamiliar spatial calendar and reproduce it. Time-space synaesthetes turned out to have much better recall than the time-blind majority.

Brang suspects that time-space synaesthesia happens when the neural processes underlying spatial processing are unusually active. “This enhanced processing would generalise to other functions of spatial processing – mental rotation, map navigation, spatial manipulation,” he says.

Brang did not speculate on whether time-space synaesthetes could regenerate, or if they have two hearts: both key characteristics of Time Lords.

Source | New Scientist