March 16, 2007

Catalyst could help turn CO2 into fuel

New Scientist reports on new catalysts to help take CO2 from the atmosphere to make fuel

The team heated a mixture of CO2 and benzene with the catalyst to a temperature of 150 ºC, at about three times atmospheric pressure. In a first step, the catalyst enabled the CO2 to form a reactive carbamate, like that made in plants. The catalyst's next useful step was to enable the benzene molecules to grab the oxygen atom from the CO2 in the carbamate, producing phenol and a reactive carbon monoxide (CO) species.

The Max Planck technique has only been demonstrated on a small scale and it has a low yield of 20%, he points out. "But it looks quite promising," he adds. "The catalyst can be made cheaply and it works at a relatively low temperature."

The products of the technique are well suited to making drugs or herbicides, says Wood, "so hopefully they can improve the efficiency and scale it up."

Scanning tunneling microscopes could get 500 times faster

A new nanoscale apparatus developed at JILA—a tiny gold beam whose 40 million vibrations per second are measured by hopping electrons—offers the potential for a 500-fold increase in the speed of scanning tunneling microscopes (STM), perhaps paving the way for scientists to watch atoms vibrate in high definition in real time.

The new device measures the wiggling of the beam, or, more precisely, the space between it and an electrically conducting point just a single atom wide, based on the speed of electrons “tunneling” across the gap. The work is the first use of an “atomic point contact,” the business end of an STM, to sense a nanomechanical device oscillating at its “resonant” frequency, where it naturally vibrates like a tuning fork. JILA is a joint venture of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Although the JILA technique, described in the March 2 issue of Physical Review Letters,* is not necessarily as precise as more complex and much colder methods of measuring very fast motions of ultra-small devices, it incorporates several innovative attributes. These include the ability to minimize unwanted random electronic “noise” as well as to measure the random shaking of the beam caused by back-action or recoil (similar to what happens when a gun is fired). This level of sensitivity is possible because the atomic point contact acts as an amplifier for these otherwise imperceptible factors, and the gold beam is tiny and floppy enough—just 100 nanometers (nm) thick, and 5.6 micrometers long by 220 nm wide—to respond to single electrons.

March 15, 2007

Network of PS3 could deliver petaflop and even exaflop computing

Scientists believe that 10,000 idle PS3s can deliver over a petaflop This is four times more than IBM's BlueGene/L System, which cranks out 280.6 trillion calculations per second. If Sony could actually sell the PS3 with as much success as the PS2, then 100 million units could provide over an exaflop of computing power.

The cell roadmap is for 45nm chips by 2010 and be about 5 times more powerful with teraflop performance

The roadmap shows the already scheduled die shrink to 65 nm (just introduced March 12, 2007, making the Cell considerably cheaper to produce and reducing power consumption. Its die with 9 processors (1 PPE + 8 SPEs) is currently still 235 mm² in size and therefore at the level of IBM's top server chip POWER5+ with 243 mm² (for comparison: Intel Core2Duo - 143 mm²).
IBMs Dual-Cell Bladeserver hardware uses up to 315 Watts and we learn that Sony puts a 380 Watts PSU into their Playstation 3, a very comfortable power margin for the quiet-running performance product.

A new line of mid-class Cells is set to debut in 2008 with only 4 SPEs and a particular focus on low power consumption with cheap producibility in bulk silicon vs. the more complex SOI technology. Toshiba plans to scale it down to a single-SPU version for ultra-portable devices in 2010.

At the other end of the performance scale the renewed 5-years alliance will culminate in a teraflops processor. According to Cell architect Jim Kahle the performance goal can be achieved by 2010 with a new 32 SPE Cell die.

New Micromanipulator May Help Build Micro-Machines

Future microscopic-sized machines assembled with micrometer or nanometer-scale parts will need to be made with devices that use tiny, agile "fingers" that can grip, lift and do the assembly work in a controlled, coordinated way.

Within their tiny chip-like station, four micro "fingers" can grasp and move micron-sized particles as commanded. Micro tweezer-like devices now commercially available can only grip and hold small particles in place, but to manipulate them requires accessory devices that make the process cumbersome. The UIC engineers got around this problem.

"We thought of mimicking the functionality of human fingers," said Saggere. "The device has multiple, coordinated fingers that grip a particle and take it from one given position to another within a small area."

Saggere and Krishnan have proved this works, using a laboratory device they built. The prototype is proof of the concept, but refinements are planned.

"We can increase the number of fingers, increase the area in which manipulation can occur, or enable more dexterous positioning of even smaller particles by improving the fingertip design," he said. "We can also add a little more flexibility and reduce the footprint size of the device in an improved design."

Making the fingers flexible and dexterous enough to do precise work at the micro-scale level has yet to be accomplished. Saggere and Krishnan developed systematic algorithms to design the configuration of the flexible fingers in the micromanipulator to coordinate with each other like human fingers at the micro- or even nanometer scale.

Costs of regulations

An interesting article about the costs of regulation by Eliezer Yudkowsky It links to the benefits of FDA regulation relative to that in foreign countries could reasonably be put at some 5,000 casualties per decade or 10,000 per decade for worst-case scenarios. In comparison, it has been argued above that the cost of FDA delay can be estimated at anywhere from 21,000 to 120,000 lives per decade. Note three things about the foregoing passage. (1) The comparison is between the FDA and the foreign systems of drug control. (2) The relative benefits of the FDA are expressed in number of casualties, whereas the relative costs are in number of lives. (3) In addressing the costs, Gieringer estimated the costs only from drug delay; he does not attempt to quantify the costs associated with drug loss. Nevertheless, his conclusion is clear: the FDA is responsible for more lives lost than lives saved.

The FDA has no incentive to get drugs out earlier.

It takes 12 to 15 years for new drugs and medical devices to be approved

The alternative are voluntary assurance systems

Society has three broad approaches to quality and safety assurance:

1. Voluntary practices and institutions, such as reputation, knowers, and middlemen, which assure quality and safety because it is profitable to satisfy the consumer and live up to one's promises

2. Tort remedy, by which consumers who are harmed or cheated may sue under the rubrics of fraud, false representation, breach of warranty, negligence, malpractice, and so on

3. Governmentally imposed restrictions on voluntary exchange, whereby government attempts to determine the quality and safety of goods and services, and prohibits exchange until it has given permission

These kinds of systems need to be examined as the rate of new technology introduction increases and society will be allowing more death by not introducing new technology with proper speed.

Technological solutions are real time modeling and individual assessment before administering treatment and real time monitoring during and after treatment. Instead of taking 12-15 years to guess about drug effects upon a population, get accurate models of each person and model the effect of each drug for each individual.

Could crazy technology save the planet?

Crazy-sounding ideas for saving the planet are getting a serious look from top scientists, a sign of their fears about global warming and the desire for an insurance policy in case things get worse. There's the man-made "volcano" that shoots gigatons of sulfur high into the air. The space "sun shade" made of trillions of little reflectors between Earth and sun, slightly lowering the planet's temperature. The forest of ugly artificial "trees" that suck carbon dioxide out of the air. And the "Geritol solution" in which iron dust is dumped into the ocean.

I think the future will be filled with what people currently consider to be crazy technology. Molecular nanotechnology, large scale Quantum computers, effective space travel, radical life extension, metamaterials, genetic control, radiation spectrum control etc... As I track in the articles on my site, many precursor to full blown crazy technology are starting to have impact. Molecular technology and other technologies that radically transform rapid production will eliminate the bottlenecks for infrastructure replacement.

Current costs and the future of Fuel cells

Fuelcell Energy is the leading company for stationary larger fuel cells.

Their cost out program quotes prices coming down from $3800 to 3400/kw and to below $3000/kw in volumes which seem to be expected in 2007. They are selling about 20MW. They have bids out for about 91MW.

If cost reduction is in the 8-15% per year range then we are looking at 2012-2016 as being the years when fuel cells get cost competitive. $1500/kw or less. Currently they depend upon subsidies and have tiny volumes.

Japan is talking about making membranes out of plastic which could greatly lower costs for car sized mobile systems

DOE programs are for 10 year s to get to large scale demo fuel cell plants that are cost competitive. 2020 target date for commercial systems.

These are promising systems offering possibly the only option for meeting the DOE's efficiency goal for advanced coal based power systems of 60 percent (HHV) for fuel-to-electricity, with near zero emissions and competitive costs for multi-MW class central power plants in a 2020 time frame.

Useful links:

2015-2020 for fuel cells to get commercially competitive, 2020-2030 for serious scale up unless there is a major technological breakthrough like molecular nanotechnology. So nuclear is still the main non-fossil fuel approach for the next 20 years and retrofiting current coal plants to clean particulates and pollution so they are less deadly. (mainly US, China, India), shut down the 10% of the smallest, oldest and dirtiest coal plants.

To improve the capabilities of coal power plants to capture primary particulates, the Energy Department's Fossil Energy program assisted in the development of devices that combine the best features of both a baghouse and an electrostatic precipitator (ESP) in the same compact enclosure. This device removes at least 99.99% of the solid particles in the flue gas of coal-fired power plants. Other projects developed improvements to the efficiency of existing electrostatic precipitators by installing a device that concentrates particles escaping the ESP and recycling them back to the ESP inlet. Another project developed low-cost, non-toxic conditioning agents that are injected in flue gases before they enter the ESP to make the tiny particles more
susceptible to capture.

Inkjets make microchips

Inkjets can make organic semiconductors. The plants costs $10 million instead of $1.3 billion for a silicon semiconductor plant. The inkjet organic semiconductor plants needs 50 people instead of 5000. The organic chip feature sizes are 10-100 microns instead of 65 nanomaters. The devices can come in a variety of sizes. Nanoident has built some that measure 160 centimeters a side, or more than 1.5 meters wide. These large devices are used as sensors.

They can go smaller than 10 microns but want applications that need the extra speed that would result to justify costs. Current applications are lot of one use testing devices and sensors.

Possible New state of matter could be useful for Quantum computing

Xiao-Gang Wen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Michael Levin at Harvard University have come up with a prediction for a new state of matter (string-net liquid) and even a tantalising picture of the nature of space-time itself.

Herbertsmithite could be the new silicon - the building block for quantum computers. In theory, quantum computers are far superior to classical computers. In practice, they are difficult to construct because quantum bits, or qubits, are extremely fragile. Even a slight knock can destroy stored information. In the late 1980s, mathematician Michael Freedman, then at Harvard University, and Alexei Kitaev, then at the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics in Russia, independently came up with a radical solution to this problem. Instead of storing qubits in properties of particles, such as an electron's spin, they suggested that qubits could be encoded into properties shared by the whole material, and so would be harder to disrupt.
If the Herbertsmithite material were a string-net liquid with elementary and quasi-particles at the end of each string. Physicists could manipulate quasi-particles with electric fields, braiding them around each other, encoding information in the number of times the strings twist and knot, says Freedman. A disturbance might knock the whole braid, but it won't change the number of twists - protecting the information. "The hardware itself would correct any errors," says Miguel Angel Martin-Delgado of Complutense University in Madrid, Spain.

Herbertsmithite (pictured) is unusual because its electrons are arranged in a triangular lattice. Normally, electrons prefer to line up so that their spins are in the opposite direction to that of their immediate neighbours, but in a triangle this is impossible - there will always be neighbouring electrons spinning in the same direction. Wen and Levin's model shows that such a system would be a string-net liquid.

Although herbertsmithite exists in nature, the mineral contains impurities that disrupt any string-net signatures, says Lee. So Helton's team made a pure sample in the lab. "It was painstaking," says Lee. "It took us a full year to prepare it and another year to analyse it."

The team measured the degree of magnetisation in the material, in response to an applied magnetic field. If herbertsmithite behaves like ordinary matter, they argue, then below about 26 °C the spins of its electrons should stop fluctuating - a condition called magnetic order. But the team found no such transition, even down to just a fraction above absolute zero.

They measured other properties, too, such as heat conduction. In conventional solids, the relationship between their temperature and their ability to conduct heat changes below a certain temperature, because the structure of the material changes. The team found no sign of such a transition in herbertsmithite, suggesting that, unlike other types of matter, its lowest energy state has no discernible order. "We could have created something in the lab that nobody has seen before," says Lee.

The team plans further tests to visualise the position of individual electrons, looking for long-range entanglement by firing neutrons at the crystal and observing how they scatter. "We want to see the dynamics of the spin," says Lee. "If we tweak one [electron], we can see how the others are affected."

Even if herbertsmithite is not a new state of matter, we shouldn't be surprised if one is found soon, as many teams are hunting for them, says Freedman. He says people wrongly assume that particle accelerators are the only places where big discoveries about matter can be made. "Accelerators are just recreating conditions after the big bang and repeating experiments that are old hat for the universe," he says. "But in labs people are creating [conditions] that are colder than anywhere that has ever existed in the universe. We are bound to stumble on something the universe has never seen before

Microbot propulsion

Finding a propulsion mechanism that works on the microscopic scale is one of the key challenges for developing microrobots. Another is to find a way to supply such a device with energy because there is so little room to carry on-board fuel or batteries.

Now a team lead by Orlin Velev at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, US, has found that a simple electronic diode could overcome both these problems. Velev and Vesselin Paunov from the University of Hull, UK, floated a diode in a tank of salt water and zapping the set-up with an alternating electric field. They reached speeds of several millimetres per second using electro-osmosis.

But there are still significant challenges ahead. Velev's diodes are millimetre-sized but any robot designed to work within the human body would have to be an order of magnitude smaller. In the past, attempts to shrink propulsive mechanisms have run up against a fundamental barrier in fluid dynamics: fluids become progressively more viscous on smaller scales. "It's like moving through honey" says Velev.

But extrapolations of the team's measurements indicate the propulsive force will work just as well at smaller scales. "The propulsive force scales in exactly the same way as the drag. That's quite significant," says McKinley.

Another challenge is that electro-osmosis occurs only at higher pH levels, when the ionic content of the water is high. Changing the pH from acidic to alkaline reverses the direction of thrust and there is zero thrust when the pH is about 6. Blood is only weakly alkaline so Velev will have to make adjustments to generate significant propulsive forces inside the body. He thinks the problem might be overcome by covering the diode with a polymer that shifts the pH at which zero thrust occurs.

Other types of micropropulsion have all run up against significant barriers. One idea exploits the phenomenon in which an electric current in a magnetic field experiences a force. The idea is to bathe a robot in a magnetic field and then switch on a current to generate a force. "The trouble is you need to power the current which requires an onboard battery. How do you do that?" asks McKinley.

Ultrasound can create pressure gradients within liquids that can move particles around. The problem here is that ultrasound can be hard to focus and can also cause bubbles to form and collapse, a process called cavitation that can damage cells.

Yet another option is to carry an onboard supply of hydrogen peroxide which dissociates into steam and oxygen. Expelling these gases generates a force - the attitude thrusters on the space shuttle work in the same way. But the fuel supply uses up the space available for sensors.

Richard Jones and his co-authors announced at Softmachines a platinum catalyzed version of the hydrogen peroxide propulsion of microbots They are using a directed random walk where the propulsion interacts with Brownian motion. the abstract for their paper is here

March 13, 2007

Top 30 cities

The top 30 cities have 16% of the GDP by PPP of the world. 9780 billion out of 61000 billion in 2005. They had 4% of the population. 261 million out of 6.5 billion.

Price Waterhouse Coopers had a study of cities from 2005 to 2020

A 40 page pdf has some of the information with a focus on the UK and London

The top 100 cities have 25% fo the GDP of the world.

The top cities on the list are mainly from the United States (16). In 2020, there will still be 12 from the United States. Asia will move up the list.

the top six in 2005 being Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Paris and London.

Five emerging economy cities are currently in the top 30 ranked by GDP (Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Sao Paolo, Moscow and Rio de Janeiro), but projections suggest that all of these cities except Rio will move up the global rankings by 2020 while fast-growing cities such as Shanghai, Mumbai, Istanbul, Metro Manila and Beijing will move into the global top 30 by 2020

March 12, 2007

Other uses for metamaterials

Making a negative-index material that works for visible light is more difficult, because the building blocks have to be much smaller--no bigger than 10 to 20 nanometers. That's now very possible to achieve, however, and several groups are working on it. If it can be done, these metamaterials could be used to increase the amount of information stored on CDs and DVDs or to speed up transmission and reduce power consumption in fiber-optic telecommunications.

We can also concentrate electro­magnetic fields--the exact opposite of what the cloak does--which might be valuable in energy-harvesting applications. With a suitable metamaterial, we could concentrate light coming from any direction--you wouldn't need direct sunlight. Right now we're trying to design structures like this. If we could achieve that for visible light, it could make solar power more efficient.

Atomic Design of Superstrong Materials

From MIT Technology Review, researchers have learned how to design the nanoscale features of materials to make them four times stronger without making them brittle. The new insight is the result of a significant improvement to an existing computer model that allowed researchers to, for the first time, simulate the complex mechanical behavior of nanostructures in metals. The advance is part of a larger ongoing effort to use software to discover new materials that would be impossible or impractical to discover using experiments alone.

The work "Interfacial plasticity governs strain rate sensitivity and ductility in nanostructured metals", described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by researchers at MIT, Ohio State, and the Georgia Institute of Technology, could lead to more-durable materials for gears in microscale machines. Subra Suresh (MIT), Ting Zhu (Georgia Tech), Ju Li (Ohio State), Amit Samanta (Ohio State) and Hyoung Gyu Kim (Ohio State) were the authors. It could also lead to coatings that dramatically improve the performance of larger-scale structures, such as metal plating on artificial joints, says Subra Suresh, professor of materials science and engineering at MIT.

For decades, researchers have known that making the grains smaller--say, 10 nanometers across instead of a few micrometers--makes the material stronger. That's because there are more grains and, therefore, more boundaries that prevent the atoms from shifting.

A few years ago, researchers at the Shenyang National Laboratory for Materials Science in China synthesized a novel form of nanostructured metal, nano-twinned copper. The material was created by introducing controlled concentrations of twin boundaries within very small grains of the metal using a technique known as pulsed electrodeposition. The Shenyang group, working in collaboration with Suresh's group at MIT, demonstrated in the last two years that nano-twinned copper has many of the same desirable characteristics as nano-grained copper, and in addition resulted in a good combination of strength and ductility. By controlling the thickness and spacing of twin boundaries inside small grains to nanometer-level precision, they were able to produce copper with different "tunable" combinations of strength and ductility.

If too much force is applied, however, the dislocated atoms at these boundaries can cause the materials to break apart. This makes nanostructured materials more brittle.

The new version of copper contains another set of boundaries, called twins. These occur inside a grain when atoms on either side of an imaginary line are mirror images of each other. In the new copper, the grains are much larger than 10 nanometers, but they're divided into twins with boundaries about 10 nanometers apart. These boundaries are much more orderly than grain boundaries are.

Augmenting soldiers

Wired looks at DARPA's human soldier augmentation programs

- Cooling hands helps endurance. The reason is that muscles don’t wear out because they use up stored sugars but because they get to hot. Cooling helps overclock the body.

- Working to suspend injured soldiers through oxygen depravation. Mice were give a whiff of hydrogen sulfide first. Then they survived in the 5 percent oxygen environment for six hours — unconscious but alive. They knocked rats out with a blast of the gas and drained 60 percent of their blood. They lived for 10 hours or more.

- Heated gloves can stave of hypothermia

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