Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Proton transistors to bridge machines and living things

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Summary: Materials scientists at the University of Washington have built a novel transistor that uses protons, creating a key piece for devices that can communicate directly with living things.

Devices like iPads and light bulbs use electrons to send information, but in nature, electrical signaling occurs with ions and protons.

Scientists at University of Washington have built a novel transistor that uses protons, opening the door to a new class of bio-compatible solid-state devices that can potentially communicate directly with living things.

On the left is a colored photo of the UW device overlaid on a graphic of the other components. On the right is a magnified image of the chitosan fibers. The white scale bar is 200 nanometers. Credit: UW

Researchers have been exploring for ways to connect devices with the human body’s processes for biological sensing or for prosthetics. While gains have been made in bio-compatible electronic devices that can flex, stretch and function in wet environments, such as the human body, the same cannot be said about how they communicate with living tissue.

“So there’s always this issue, a challenge, at the interface – how does an electronic signal translate into an ionic signal, or vice versa?” said lead author Marco Rolandi, a UW assistant professor of materials science and engineering. “We found a biomaterial that is very good at conducting protons, and allows the potential to interface with living systems.”

Electronic devices typically communicate using electrons, which are negatively charged particles. In the body, protons activate “on” and “off” switches and are key players in biological energy transfer, whereas ions open and close channels in the cell membrane to pump things in and out of the cell. Humans and other animals use ions to flex their muscles and transmit brain signals.

“A machine that was compatible with a living system in this way could, in the short term, monitor such processes. Someday it could generate proton currents to control certain functions directly,” notes a release.

The first step toward this type of control is a transistor that can send pulses of proton current and the UW prototype is the first one to demonstrate that it can. The device is a field-effect transistor, which includes a gate, a drain and a source terminal for the current. It measures about 5 microns wide, roughly a twentieth the width of a human hair, and uses a modified form of the compound chitosan originally extracted from squid pen, a part of the squid that remains from its shelled ancestors. The team found that chitosan works remarkably well at moving protons and is easy to source.

“In our device large bioinspired molecules can move protons, and a proton current can be switched on and off, in a way that’s completely analogous to an electronic current in any other field effect transistor,” Rolandi said.

Applications for the proton transistor are still a long way off and include direct sensing of cells in a laboratory. Once a bio-compatible version is available –the current prototype has a silicon base and could not be used in a human body–it could be implanted directly in living things to monitor, or even control, certain biological processes directly, say the scientists.

The study “A polysaccharide bioprotonic field-effect transistor” is published online this week in the interdisciplinary journal Nature Communications.


A better wearable brain-computer interface
Bacterial nanowire discovery could revolutionize bioelectronics

Christopher Jablonski is a freelance technology writer.

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$15 billion: The value of a box of Girl Scout cookies

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Summary: Rice University scientists demonstrate how graphene — a “miracle material” — can be made from just about any carbon source, including insects, waste, and Girl Scout cookies.

In the movie Back to the Future, all it took was some garbage and a banana peel to fuel a flux capacitor which sent Emmett “Doc” Brown’s DeLorean through time. While a device that converts any matter into such immense energy doesn’t yet exist, scientists can make graphene out of just about anything as long as it contains carbon, including Girl Scout Cookies.

To illustrate how graphene can be made from food, insects and waste, Rice University students recently invited a troop of Houston Girl Scouts to their lab to show them how it’s done.

Graphene is a “miracle material” made from a single-atom-thick sheet of the same material in pencil lead. It  can be used in the fabrication of anything from next-generation transistors to carbon nanotubes, and other exotic materials.

The researchers calculated that at the then-commercial rate for pristine graphene — $250 for a two-inch square — a box of traditional Girl Scout shortbread cookies could turn a $15 billion profit. And a sheet of graphene made from one box of shortbread cookies would cover nearly 30 football fields.

Whether it be cookies, grass, polystyrene plastic, or insects, the researchers made from it high-quality graphene via carbon deposition on copper foil. The work is published online today by ACS Nano.

The process takes about 15 minutes and requires a furnace turned up to 1,050 degrees Celsius flowing with argon and hydrogen gas. Graphene forms on the opposite side of the foil as solid carbon sources decompose while the other residues are left on the original side.

James Tour, a professor at Rice University said the Girl Scouts took away an important lesson from their visit: “They learned that carbon — or any element — in one form can be inexpensive and in another form can be very expensive.” He also pointed to diamonds as a good example. “You could probably get a very large diamond out of a box of Girl Scout Cookies.”

As commercial interests develop methods to manufacture graphene in bulk, the cost is expected to drop, said Tour in a release.

My question is: Will the research team retire early?

Christopher Jablonski is a freelance technology writer.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

NASA unveils new deep-space rocket design

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Summary: The Space Launch System (SLS) is NASA’s next-generation rocket system that will serve as the centerpiece for deep space exploration for the coming decades.

NASA unveiled Wednesday the design for the Space Launch System (SLS), a next-generation rocket system that will serve as the centerpiece for deep space exploration for the coming decades.

Credit: NASA

The rocket would be the most powerful since the Saturn V that took Americans to the moon four decades ago. NASA expects it to propel astronauts on missions farther than anyone has ever traveled, including an asteroid by 2025 and Mars the following decade.

The agency said that SLS will provide the nation with a safe, affordable and sustainable means of reaching beyond our current limits and open up new discoveries from the unique vantage point of space.

“This launch system will create good-paying American jobs, ensure continued U.S. leadership in space, and inspire millions around the world,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. “President Obama challenged us to be bold and dream big, and that’s exactly what we are doing at NASA. While I was proud to fly on the space shuttle, kids today can now dream of one day walking on Mars.”

The SLS rocket will be designed to carry the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, as well as important cargo, equipment and science experiments to Earth’s orbit and beyond. It will also serve as a back up for commercial and international partner transportation services to the International Space Station.

To speed up development and control costs, NASA relied on pieces from the just-retired space shuttles for thew new rocket design (shuttle tiles are going to schools). The first stage would essentially be an elongated shuttle fuel tank, and it would use the same rocket engines. Initial test flights would use strapped on solid rocket boosters–stretched versions of the shuttle boosters–to provide additional thrust.

The first unmanned test flight of the first iteration of the rocket, able to lift 70 metric tons (154,000 pounds) to low-Earth orbit, is targeted for the end of 2017.  Future iterations are to be more powerful, capable of lifting up to 130 metric tons (286,000 pounds).

The cost of the program is estimated at $18 billion through an initial test flight in 2017, and about $30 billion through the first piloted mission in 2021.

According to an article in New York Times, it would take roughly $62 billion to fly up to two missions a year and start developing deep-space habitat and other components needed for a mission to an asteroid.


Nuclear power plants for settlements on the Moon and Mars
Acts of space warfare likely by 2025
100 Year Starship Study

Christopher Jablonski is a freelance technology writer.

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The silver lining of a world run amuck by machines

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Summary: The widening gap between technology investment and job growth means bright prospects for robots and computers. But where does that leave humans? On the fringes, say experts.

Everyday, we learn about new uses for computers and machines that replace or augment humans. Google has developed cars that drive themselves, algorithms can write news stories from data, and in Japan factories run “lights out” for weeks at a time with little or no human presence.

Historically, technology revolutions spawn waves of creative destruction that produce new kinds of jobs. For instance, the industrial revolution put artisans out of work but employed legions of unskilled laborers.

Today, there is a widening gap between technology investment and job growth. The national unemployment rate is at its highest point since the early 80’s and out-of-work protestors are taking to the streets.

A new book, “Race Against the Machine” from MIT researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argues that jobs lost since the Great Recession haven’t returned partly because companies have invested more heavily in automated technology, rather than hiring (outsourcing is another cause). The authors spell out the consequences in an article published in The Atlantic:

The threat of technological unemployment is real. To understand this threat, we’ll define three overlapping sets of winners and losers that technical change creates: (1) high-skilled vs. low-skilled workers, (2) superstars vs. everyone else, and (3) capital vs. labor. Each set has well-documented facts and compelling links to digital technology. What’s more, these sets are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the winners in one set are more likely to be winners in the other two sets as well, which concentrates the consequences.

The white-collar worker is not immune. In the coming decades, advanced pattern recognition software and AI-driven systems will replace much of what knowledge workers do today, including those in the retail, legal and information technology industries (See Larry Dignan’s recent post).

The trend has led experts like Douglas Rushkoff to question if jobs are obsolete and if society should continue to organize itself around employment.

Others, however, view this labor revolution with optimism, claiming that we have a place alongside machines. It is making us confront the fundamental question of what humans are good at and potentially expose a greater meaning to life.

Marina Gorbis, executive director at Institute for the Future, an independent nonprofit research group, points out that machines don’t just replace what we do, they change the nature of what we do by extending our capabilities and setting new expectations for what’s possible. She writes:

Over the next decade, while machines will replace humans in some tasks, they’ll also amplify us, enabling us to do things we never dreamed of doing before. We’ll enter into a new kind of partnership with these machines—one that will shine light on the unique comparative advantages of humans: thinking, creativity, spontaneity, adaptability, and improvisation.

The World Future Society argues that industries that undergo technological transformation don’t disappear, but the number of jobs they support sure do. For instance, agribusiness employed half the population in the early 1900’s but now provides just 3% of all jobs.

David Autor, an economist at MIT, says that the transition towards a post-industrial economy will see a clustering of job opportunities at opposite ends of the skills spectrum where machines have yet to foray.

On one end of the spectrum are low-paying service-oriented jobs that require personal interaction and the manipulation of machinery in unpredictable environments, such as cooking food in a busy kitchen, or taking care of pre-schoolers.

At the other end are jobs that require creativity, ambiguity, and high levels of personal training and judgment. These include jobs that require both physical and advanced mental capabilities (e.g., nurses and plumbers) and creative acts like composing very good songs, writing great novels, or generating good ideas for new businesses.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 65% of today’s grade school kids will end up at a job that hasn’t been invented yet. It may behoove educators, academic institutions, and policy makers to prepare them for tomorrow’s challenges by harnessing the power of computing, collective intelligence and human ingenuity.

“The activities that make us human -– thinking, dreaming, learning, communicating, and feeling, are the skills that are the most difficult to program. In a contest of “man vs. machine”, people will continue to shine and outperform in these areas for years to come,” says the World Future Society.

Christopher Jablonski is a freelance technology writer.

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Monday, November 28, 2011

FailCon interview: Avoiding and learning from mistakes, successfully

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Summary: Now in its third year, FailCon’s success is riding on the idea that failure can be instructional in the learning process for tech start-ups. In this interview, the event’s founders speak with ZDNet about lessons learned and what to expect at next month’s show.

The old saying goes, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Fortunately, FailCon got it right on its first try. The one-day Silicon Valley conference is now in its third year and expanding globally. The event attracts 500 people and is designed for entrepreneurs and anyone else comfortable with looking at failure straight in the eye and harnessing lessons learned for eventual success.

ZDNet recently spoke with founders and producers Cass Philips and Diane Loviglio about running an event based on a contrarian idea and what to expect at FailCon 2011, being held on October 24th in San Francisco at the Kabuki Hotel. Speakers include; Katherine Barr, Partner, Mohr Davidow Ventures; Chris DeWolfe, CEO, MindJolt; Liz Gannes, Senior Editor, AllThingsD; Vinod Khosla, Founder, Khosla Ventures; Travis Kalanick, Co-Founder, Uber; and many more.

ZDNet: What is new for FailCon 2011?

Cass: The theme for the event is to help early-stage founders have a smoother start and more quickly recover from smaller failures, rather than have a massive failure somewhere down the line. When we’re looking for speakers, we look for people who are comfortable sharing stories that can also give actionable advice. New this year are organized lunch discussions.  Attendees can choose to join into certain discussion tables during lunch to facilitate stronger relationships being built at the event.

Diane: Like last year, we’ll be having workshops as a second track throughout the day. Each workshop will have 30 - 60 people in a room and focus on a specific topic. These intimate sessions will allow for questions and answers followed by an activity with everyone pulling out paper and pencil. They’ll cover core topics like negotiating, recruiting, funding and other major milestones that a company would go through. We’ll also have more stuff for designers about products, mobility and user experience.

ZDNet: What are the top three reasons to attend FailCon?

Cass: First, and especially important to those who are new in the industry, you will see and get a chance to meet the people who are today’s movers and shakers. We also get investors, press, PR reps, and decision makers at the show so the networking opportunity is incredible. Secondly, it is one of the best conferences to walk away with a to-do list for your start-up that is immediately applicable. It is great to hear inspirational speakers, but this show will actually help you with practical matter, like how you do your branding and implement it across your website in a clear manner and then extend it for mobile devices.  Or how you make your first hire and build a team. That’s where a lot of conferences are lacking.

Diane: The third one is that this conference allows you to switch off from “sales pitch mode” and talk about failures. It is not for you to pimp up your start-up but rather to learn from others, help solve problems, and find that support network. People are encouraged to talk about things that are not going well. Speakers often stay for the duration of the show to speak with attendees, whereas at other shows, they usually take off. Last year, Esther Dyson stayed from 8AM until 6PM taking in the whole conference and not just showing up for her slot.

Cass: How you start your dialogue with other attendees is completely different at FailCon. At most conferences you enter a dialogue saying, “What are you working on/here is what I’m working on.” In this conference you start with, “Here is what I’ve done wrong, can you help me?” That in itself completely restructures the conversations you have at the show.

ZDNet:  With a couple FailCon events under your belt and your first international installment just around the corner this month, what lessons have you learned?

Cass: Both of us have failed startups in our past so we empathize with founders of startups who are struggling. It was the conferences that weren’t doing as well that led me to create FailCon. I was listening to speakers on stage and getting bored at what they had to say since the content was not relevant to someone interested in early stage issues, like myself.

Diane: Being females in Silicon Valley, we wanted to make sure that we were getting good representation since there are not as many female founders. And we’ve managed to reach a balance successfully every year without depicting females as any more failure-prone than their male entrepreneur counterparts. We now see females increasingly being able to own it and speak openly about failures.

ZDNet:  Last year, Digg founder Jay Adelson was speaking at FailCon when the news broke that the company was laying off 37% of its staff. This year, you have Airbnb’s Joe Gebbia lined up who’ll likely be asked about the crisis that the rental-by-owner site faced recently. How will he handle it?

Cass: My understanding is that Joe will not bring it up during his talk and I think that by October, Airbnb will have solved the problem and moved on, which I honestly think isn’t a terrible plan. But I have warned them that it could come up during Q&A.

Diane: We secure speakers well in advance of the show, but once the day comes they could be talking about three other topics that have come up since, which I think is awesome. Things are changing all the time and certain subjects will be more relevant to the speakers, so they could bring up anything really, and if surprises arise I’m sure they could handle it well, just as Jay did last year.

ZDNet: Who comes to FailCon?

Cass: People who are choosing to attend an event called FailCon are self-selecting themselves to be the kind of people comfortable talking about failures. They are coming ready to be a little more open.

Diane: In addition to founders, we also get people from a lot of big companies like Cisco, Wal-Mart, and Yahoo. Our hunch is that those people want to leave their companies to do start-ups, or maybe they want to bring back insights to create smaller teams within their teams. We also get quite a few students from business schools like Haas and Stanford.

ZDNet: What is next on your international agenda?

Cass: We are hosting our first international event in Paris on September 22, 2011, and we are looking to do one in Chile in January. We’re also talking with a few other countries, and are working to launch an event in Cape Town, South Africa in early 2012. It’s going to be an even more exciting show overseas because failure is so taboo in so many places. In San Francisco, founders are more comfortable talking about it, whereas in other parts of the world, talking publicly about failure could make it difficult to raise capital or get a job. I’m excited to get a chance to help change cultures.

Learn more:

FailCon 2011 | FailCon Paris


Pogue: Six factors for highly unsuccessful products
Secrets of Successful Startups: The magic of PR (video)
There are six types of startups…

Christopher Jablonski is a freelance technology writer.

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Bacterial nanowire discovery could revolutionize bioelectronics

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Summary: Researchers report metallic-like conduction of an electrical charge across the biofilm of specialized bacteria, opening new possibilities for environmentally-sustainable nanomaterials and nano-electronic devices.

A team of researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have discovered conductive properties in the microbial nanowires found in the bacterium Geobacter sulfurreducens that could revolutionize nanotechnology and bioelectronics.

The microbial filaments or nanowires in the bacterium allows electron transport across long distances — thousands of times the bacterium’s length. This property was previously unknown to researchers. The biofilm, as it’s called, can also move electron charges as efficiently as synthetic organic metallic nanostructures.

Geobacter and its nanowire network (Credit: Anna Klimes and Ernie Carbone) Geobacter and its nanowire network (Credit: Anna Klimes and Ernie Carbone)

The discovery, reported in the Aug. 7th advance online issue of Nature Nanotechnology, could one day lead to the development of cheaper, nontoxic biosensors and solid state electronics that interface with biological systems.

Mark Tuominen, the lead physicist, says: “This discovery not only puts forward an important new principle in biology but in materials science. We can now investigate a range of new conducting nanomaterials that are living, naturally occurring, nontoxic, easier to produce and less costly than man-made. They may even allow us to use electronics in water and moist environments. It opens exciting opportunities for biological and energy applications that were not possible before.”

In nature, the Geobacter species grows on iron minerals in soils and sediments and use their microbial nanowires to transfer electrons onto iron oxides, allowing them to “breathe”. To better understand the biological process in the lab, the UMass researchers let Geobacter grow on electrodes and through studies found that the metallic-like conductivity in the biofilm could be attributed to a network of nanowires spreading throughout the biofilm.

Similar to the flexibility of artificial nano-wires, the conducting properties of the Geobacter biofilm could be manipulated by simply changing the temperature or regulating gene expression to create a new strain, for example.  By adding a third electrode, the biofilm can act like a biological transistor, able to be switched on or off by applying a voltage.

Another advantage Geobacter offers is its ability to produce materials that are more eco-friendly and less expensive than man-made versions, many of which require rare elements, says the team.

Lead microbiologist Derek Lovley quips, “We’re basically making electronics out of vinegar. It can’t get much cheaper or more ‘green’ than that.”

(Sources: News Release,

Christopher Jablonski is a freelance technology writer.

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Sunday, November 27, 2011

'Pixel' covered tank blends into its surroundings

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Summary: BAE Systems has announced an “invisibility cloak” that allows combat vehicles to become invisible to thermal imaging systems.

BAE Systems have tested a new camouflaging system called “Adaptive” that can instantly blend a combat vehicle into its natural surroundings by making it invisible to infrared and other surveillance technology.

Adaptiv can also mimic natural objects and other vehicles, and display tags for Identification Friend/Foe (IFF) capability by displaying distinctive patterns visible only at certain spectral ranges or in response to an interrogation signal.

The technology is based on sheets of lightweight hexagonal ‘pixels’ (panels) that are electrically powered by a vehicle’s systems. The metal panels are individually heated and cooled rapidly using semiconducting technology. The hand-sized pixels are not unlike the tiles used on the exterior of space shuttles–they’re designed to sustain physical impact and can be easily removed and replaced if damaged.

The system works with on-board cameras that pick up background scenery and display the corresponding infrared image on the vehicle, allowing even a moving tank to match its surroundings and effectively reduce detection range below 500 meters.

While testing has centered on the infrared spectrum, BAE engineers have combined the panels with other technologies to provide camouflage in other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum at the same time to provide all-round stealth. (Perhaps an electronic-ink or a light-bending cloaking device similar to the one in the movie Predator is not too far off.)

Trials by BAE Systems in mid-July showed that one side of a CV90 could be made effectively invisible or appear to be other objects, including a 4×4 vehicle, when viewed in the infrared spectrum. (See video.)

BAE Systems project manager, Peder Sjölund explains: “Earlier attempts at similar cloaking devices have hit problems because of cost, excessive power requirements or because they were insufficiently robust. Our panels can be made so strong that they provide useful armour protection and consume relatively low levels of electricity, especially when the vehicle is at rest in ’stealth recce’ mode and generator output is low.”

The panels can be used for helicopters, warships and stationary assets. “We can resize the pixels to achieve stealth for different ranges. A warship or building, for instance, might not need close-up stealth, so could be fitted with larger panels,” Sjölund said.

Defense Update reports that a similar system is also under development in Israel – ‘Invisible Reactive Armor Protection (IRAP)’ while in the U.S., DARPA and the U.S. Army research and development center have pursued similar capabilities for future iterations of the ‘Manned Ground Vehicle.’

Adaptiv using infrared will be displayed on a BAE Systems CV90 armored vehicle at the UK Defense and Security Equipment International exhibition from September 13-16.

The technology was funded in part by the Swedish Defense Material Administration (FMV).

Christopher Jablonski is a freelance technology writer.

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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Scientists develop robot that walks on water

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Summary: Chinese scientists report that they’ve developed an aquatic microrobot that mimics the water-walking abilities of water striders.

Walking on water is a way of life for some aquatic insects such as water striders. The tiny hairs on their long legs provide both a hydrophobic (water-repellent) surface as well as a large surface area to spread their weight across as they scoot over ponds, lakes and other waterways at mind-boggling speeds.

This remarkable ability has now been replicated in machine insects. Chinese scientists report that they’ve developed an aquatic microrobot that mimics the water-walking abilities of water striders.

Credit: American Chemical Society Credit: American Chemical Society

The robot insect is faster, more agile and cheaper to fabricate compared to previous designs, making it a prime candidate for military spy missions, water pollution/supply monitoring, and other applications, the scientists say.

The robot has a body about the size of a quarter and is outfitted with ten superhydrophobic wire legs, and two movable, oar-like legs that are propelled by two miniature DC motors.

According to a study appearing in the journal, ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, “The microrobot could not only stand effortlessly but also walk and turn freely on the water surface, exhibiting an interesting motion characteristic.” View the video (.avi).

“Because the weight of the microrobot is equal to that of about 390 water striders, one might expect that it will sink quickly when placed on the water surface,” the report noted.  Instead, the mechanical creature stands effortlessly on water surfaces and also walks and turns freely.

The study was funded by the Harbin Institute of Technology and Natural Science Foundation of China.

(Source: ACS News)


Research gives clues for self-cleaning materials, water-striding robots

An artificial hairy surface that refuses to get wet

Resilient cockroach-inspired robot survives large falls, dashes off

Christopher Jablonski is a freelance technology writer.

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