Monthly Archives: October 2008

Gecko-grip material aims to be the end of glue

Geckos have long inspired scientists and super-hero fans alike with their ability to scamper up vertical walls and cling to ceilings with a single toe. In recent years, people have attempted to create materials that match those spectacular abilities, in the hope of creating new advanced adhesives, or even car braking systems.

Now US chemists claim to have made one based on nanotubes that it is 10 times stickier than some gecko feet. Even more impressively, like a real gecko foot, it can also be easily unstuck with a tug in the right direction.

Gecko’s superhero toes are covered in microscopic hairs, known as setae, with even smaller branches at the tips, called spatulae.

These ensure that a gecko’s foot has a large surface area in contact with any surface, maximising the weak but ever-present attraction between adjacent molecules known as the van der Waals force.


Hawking: If we survive the next 200 years, we should be OK

Professor Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s great scientists, is looking to the stars to save the human race — but pessimism is overriding his natural optimism.

Hawking, in an exclusive CNN interview, said that if humans can survive the next 200 years and learn to live in space, then our future will be bright.

“I believe that the long-term future of the human race must be in space,” said Hawking, who is almost completely paralyzed by the illness ALS.

“It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next 100 years, let alone next thousand, or million. The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet. Let’s hope we can avoid dropping the basket until we have spread the load.”

Hawking is one of the few scientists known to a wide audience outside academia thanks to his best-selling books, a guest spot on “The Simpsons” and an ability to clearly explain the complexities of theoretical physics.

He has 12 honorary degrees, was awarded the CBE in 1982 and since 1979 has been at Cambridge University’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, where he is Lucasian Professor of Mathematics — a post once held by Isaac Newton.

Speaking at Cambridge’s Centre for Mathematical Studies, he said: “I see great dangers for the human race. There have been a number of times in the past when its survival has been a question of touch and go. The Cuban missile crisis in 1963 was one of these. Video Watch the interview in full »

“The frequency of such occasions is likely to increase in the future. We shall need great care and judgment to negotiate them all successfully.

“But I’m an optimist. If we can avoid disaster for the next two centuries, our species should be safe, as we spread into space.”


World first for sending data using quantum cryptography

For the first time the transmission of data secured by quantum cryptography is demonstrated within a commercial telecommunications network. 41 partners from 12 European countries, including academics from the University of Bristol, have worked on realising this quantum cryptographic network since April 2004.

Today [Wednesday 8 October] the first commercial communication network using unbreakable encryption based on quantum cryptography is demonstrated in Vienna, Austria. In particular the encryption utilises keys that are generated and distributed by means of quantum cryptographic technologies. Potential users of this network, such as government agencies, financial institutions or companies with distributed subsidiaries, can encrypt their confidential communication with the highest level of security using the quantum cryptographically generated keys.

The network consists of six nodes and eight intermediary links with distances between 6km and 82km (seven links utilising commercial standard telecommunication optical fibres and one “free-space”-link along a line of sight between two telescopes). The links employ altogether six different quantum cryptographic technologies for key generation which are integrated into the network over standardised interfaces.

The network is installed in a standard optical fibre communication ring provided by SECOQC partners, Siemens AG Österreich in Vienna. Five subsidiaries of Siemens are connected to the network. The operation of the quantum cryptographic network will be visualised on a screen at the Siemens Forum in Vienna and streamed live over the Internet. The network-wide key generation and distribution will be demonstrated, the different functionalities of the network itself will be presented as well as utilisation of the keys for standard communication applications. A voice-over-iptelephone-application will be secured by the information-theoretically secure “one-time-pad-encryption“ while videoconferencing will be protected by symmetrical AES-encryption with frequent key changes. A low-cost key distributor, with the potential of extending the quantum cryptographic network to the consumer, will also be shown.


Return of the Solar Power Tower

Last week Spectrum Online ran my profile of Andasol 1, a solar thermal power plant that’s set to startup in Andalucia with the largest installation built expressly for storing renewable energy: a set of molten salt storage tanks that will hold enough heat energy to run its 50 MW steam turbine for 7.5 hours after dark. This week brought decisive evidence that another solar thermal design that makes even better use of energy storage — a so-called ‘power tower’ whereby sunlight is focused on a central tower — will also have its moment in the Andalucian sun.

The project, dubbed Gemasolar, will employ sun-tracking mirrors covering an area equal to 40 soccer fields to focus light at the top of a roughly 120-meter-high tower. There the sunlight will heat a solar receiver full of molten salt. In contrast, Andasol 1 (like most of the solar thermal plants under construction in the U.S., Spain, North Africa and the Gulf) uses thousands of square meters of trough-shaped mirrors to focus light on a synthetic oil; energy is stored via heat exchangers that transfer the synthetic oil’s heat to a molten salt.

One advantage of the power tower is thus obvious: heating salt directly eliminates the need for heat exchangers, reducing installation and operating costs. Another lies in the fortuitous thermodynamics of heating molten salts, whose maximum safe temperature of 565 C is about 165 C higher than the synthetic oil’s.

Sandia National Lab researchers verified these power tower advantages in the second half of the 90s, but also suffered through a series of operational difficulties. Five years ago the European Commission provided funding for the Gemasolar project (then known as the Solar Tres) to demonstrate that the difficulties could be overcome, but the project foundered on legal issues and changes in Spain’s renewable energy law. But engineering continued and this March the project sprung back to life when its lead proponent, Spanish engineering firm Sener, clinched a solar thermal joint venture with Abu Dabi’s alternative energy program.


New video game literally a mind game

Willpower is set to replace fast fingers in a new video game in which players move characters through a headset that monitors their brain waves.

California-based NeuroSky Inc. showed off the new headset — named Mindset — at the Tokyo Game Show, the industry’s biggest exhibition which opened near the Japanese capital Thursday.

The Mindset monitors whether the player is focused or relaxed and accordingly moves the character on a personal computer.

“We brought this to the game show as a new interface, a new platform for game creators,” NeuroSky managing director Kikuo Ito told AFP.

Children’s games using the system will hit the US market next year, Ito said.

“We are exploring the use of brain waves in the game industry because games are fun and so close to people,” he said.

“Once people get used to the idea of using brain waves for various applications, I hope we will see various products using this technology,” he said.

In distance learning courses, for example, teachers could monitor whether students were attentive, Ito said.

Train drivers and motorists could use it to judge their stress levels and alertness, Ito added.


Senecavirus Structure Revealed – Kills Cancer 10,000 Times Better Than Chemo

The Senecavirus is a “new” virus, discovered several years ago by Neotropix Inc., a biotech company in Malvern, Pennsylvania. It was at first thought to be a laboratory contaminant, but researchers found it was a pathogen, now believed to originate from cows or pigs. Further investigation found that the virus was harmless to normal human cells, but could infect certain solid tumors, such as small cell lung cancer, the most common form of lung cancer.

Scientists at Neotrophix say that, in laboratory and animal studies, the virus demonstrates cancer-killing specificity that is 10,000 times higher than that seen in traditional chemotherapeutics, with no overt toxicity. The company has developed the “oncolytic” virus as an anti-cancer agent and is already conducting early phase clinical trials in patients with lung cancer.

The 3-D structure of the virus, officially known as Seneca Valley Virus-001, reveals that it is unlike any other known member of the Picornaviridae viral family, and confirms its recent designation as a separate genus, Senecavirus. A new study reveals that the virus’s outer protein shell looks like a craggy golf ball¬—one with uneven divets and raised spikes—and the RNA strand beneath it is arranged in a round mesh rather like a whiffleball.


Carbon Nanotube Manufacturing Breakthrough Could Mean Bye-Bye Steel

Carbon nanotubes have been popping on Giz for a while, touted as one of the next wonder-materials—but a new development in their manufacture means they may not remain “future technology” for long. In fact the work of a team at CSIRO and the University of Texas at Dallas means that commercial-scale production of sheets of carbon nanotube “textile” is possible at up to seven metres per minute.

And these are no ordinary textiles either: they’re transparent and way stronger than a sheet of steel. The team’s technique involves chemically-growing “forests” of nanotubes that self-assemble, and is reported in Science currently. If it proves true we may see nanotube materials replacing metals like steel pretty soon—though I’m not sure how many people would balk at flying in a plane with wings you can partly see through.


‘Intelligent’ computers put to the test

Can machines think? That was the question posed by the great mathematician Alan Turing. Half a century later six computers are about to converse with human interrogators in an experiment that will attempt to prove that the answer is yes.

In the Turing test a machine seeks to fool judges into believing that it could be human. The test is performed by conducting a text-based conversation on any subject. If the computer’s responses are indistinguishable from those of a human, it has passed the Turing test and can be said to be “thinking”.

No machine has yet passed the test devised by Turing, who helped to crack German military codes during the Second World War. But at 9am next Sunday, six computer programs – “artificial conversational entities” – will answer questions posed by human volunteers at the University of Reading in a bid to become the first recognised “thinking” machine. If any program succeeds, it is likely to be hailed as the most significant breakthrough in artificial intelligence since the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. It could also raise profound questions about whether a computer has the potential to be “conscious” – and if humans should have the ‘right’ to switch it off.


This is your grid on brains

Managing power networks in the future may involve a little more brain power than it does today, if researchers at Missouri University of Science and Technology succeed in a new project that involves literally tapping brain cells grown on networks of electrodes.

The Missouri S&T group, working with researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology, plans to use the brain power to develop a new method for tracking and managing the constantly changing levels of power supply and demand.

Led by Dr. Ganesh Kumar Venayagamoorthy, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, the researchers will use living neural networks composed of thousands of brain cells from laboratory rats to control simulated power grids in the lab. From those studies, the researchers hope to create a “biologically inspired” computer program to manage and control complex power grids in Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria and elsewhere.

“We want to develop a totally new architecture than what exists today,” says Venayagamoorthy, who also directs the Real-Time Power and Intelligent Systems Laboratory at Missouri S&T. “Power systems control is very complex, and the brain is a very flexible, very adaptable network. The brain is really good at handling uncertainties.”

Venayagamoorthy hopes to develop a system that is “inspired by the brain but not a replica. Nobody really understands completely how the brain works.”

The research is funded through a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation.

The Missouri S&T team will work with researchers at Georgia Tech’s Laboratory for Neuroengineering, where the living neural networks have been developed and are housed and studied. A high-bandwidth Internet2 connection will connect those brain cells over 600 miles to Venayagamoorthy’s Real-Time Power and Intelligent Systems Laboratory. Missouri S&T researchers will transmit signals from that lab in Rolla, Mo., to the brain cells in the Atlanta lab, and will train those brain cells to recognize voltage signals and other information from Missouri S&T’s real-time simulator.

Venayagamoorthy’s lab is capable of simulating a power grid the size of Nigeria’s, or a portion of the combined New England and New York grid in the United States.


Scientists Develop Brighter And Thinner LCDs Using Nanowires

The world of LCD screens could be changed for the better in the near future thanks to a breakthrough of two scientists from the University of Central Florida, Orlando. Zhibing Ge and Shin-Tson Wu used nanoimprinting technology to improve that contrast ratio in LCDs. Thanks to the nano-sized polarizers, soon we could have brighter, lighter, and thinner LCD TVs, mobile screens, and computer monitors.

The scientists were able to develop such a display thanks to a so-called nanowire grid polarizer, or NWGP, which is used for backlight recycling and which improves the optical efficiency of a LCD which also leads to a decrease of the power consumption.

“The method for fabricating large area wire-grid polarizers is advancing rapidly, benefiting from the huge research momentum of nano-imprinting technology. Nowadays, it is possible to fabricate NWGPs with a pitch of 100 nanometers or smaller. Different from the reflective polarizers made from multilayer films, WGP is a grating structure which can exhibit a very high transmission contrast ratio. As a result, it holds potential for replacing the bottom sheet LP which is close to the backlight side in a LCD,” said Shin-Tson Wu.