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Out of Africa: Alternative lighting

The World Bank keeps raising the curtain on an unusual campaign to stimulate alternative and non-traditional sources of â''off-gridâ'' electricity for Africans. The World Bankâ''s â''Lighting Africaâ'' initiative held its first business development conference last week, in Accra Ghana. The conference is the latest move by the initiative to link private businesses with African partners in the area of â''off-gridâ'' electricity â'' solar, small hydro, wind, geothermal and other self-contained systems.

The campaign is a big departure for the World Bank, which for decades has loaned money â'' or helped back loans â'' to national governments who built large generating capacity for national grid networks. These networks, by their nature, are large, centralized and relatively expensive. Even worse, in most African countries these networks have failed to reach large parts of the population.

Off-grid networks are potentially a boon for rural Africans, most of whom live so far from national electric grids that they have no hope of receiving a connection, ever. By building and managing their own small grids â'' to create enough power for villages or even single schools or hospitals â'' rural Africans can get a more secure supply of electricity â'' and less expensively and more under their own control. The barrier is both financial, managerial and technical. Rural Africans and small communities often lack the money and expertise to run these systems (though many are simple enough to be easily maintained by locals.

Trying to mediate between rural Africans and their small community institutions, on the one, and the international market for alternative energy services, on the other, is new ground for the World Bank. Why far-flung alternative energy companies, interested in small projects in remote Africa, would do business with the World Bank is an open question. But the experiment is well conceived, responds to a huge need and has great potential as a learning experience, if nothing else. In short, this experiment is worth watching. If it succeeds â'' or it other institutions can do the same thing more effectively â'' the potential for rural Africa is staggering. No single technological input is more important in rural Africa than electricity; and because these communities are decentralized, the electricity solution can be too.

Worth noting also is the potential PR windfall for the World Bank. Usually to finance large-scale national grid systems, the bank must cozy up to authoritarian rulers in Africa. The â''Lighting Africaâ'' initiative helps burnish the World Bankâ''s â''greenâ'' image and also presents this large bureaucratic institution as looking out for Africaâ''s little guys. So even the PR value alone of the initiative is substantial.

Russian Nanotechnology Initiative Is Full of Intrigue

The mysterious death of Svetlana Zheludeva, deputy director for science at the Shubnikov Institute of Crystallography in Moscow, at the age of 59 has led some to speculate that she may have been poisoned.

Just five days after opening a letter addressed to Mikhail Kovalchuk, the director of the Kurchatov Institute, which contained a white powder, Zheludeva died of complete organ failure.

After tests were run on the mysterious white powder, poisoning has been ruled out. But it is all a bit strange. Just as a little background, according to the Moscow Times, Kovalchuk received $1 billion last year to develop nanotechnology and turn the Kurchatov Institute into a nanotechnology research hub.

Since its inception the government-backed initiative to develop nanotechnology in Russia has always been outside the norm.

Instead of setting up a government institution to serve as the mechanism to fund research projects in nanotechnology throughout the countryâ''think in terms of the USâ''s National Nanotechnology Initiativeâ''which has been more or less the standard for all other countriesâ'' approach to developing nanotechnology, Russia instead decided to set up a private company.

This approach was certainly innovative, and not necessarily a bad idea especially if youâ''re looking to create a platform for quick commercialization of the research.

But after announcements to allocate anywhere from $5 to $7 billion to nanotechnology research within the first 8 years of the program, the initiative has been fraught with strange little intrigues. For instance, the Economic Development and Trade Ministry objected to the proposal to start the program in 2007 and proposed launching it in 2008 and completing it five years later. As a result, according to published reports, the government announced an allocation of just $150 million for nanotechnology in the federal budget for 2007.

Then came bizarre announcements by Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov at a Federation Council session that Russian sales of nanotechnology products are expected to amount to $700 billion in 2008.

In a country that brought us both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, we should expect an entertaining yarn as Russia begins its push to be a leader in nanotechnology.

A Wiki Project on Safe Handling of Nanoparticles Proposed

A couple of weeks ago I blogged on the recent report from the International Council on Nanotechnology (ICON) that detailed the findings from two workshops it held in 2007.

I was dubious of the true international scope of the workshops and the resulting report, and was concerned over a seeming lack of cooperation between the major groups investigating environmental, health and safety (EHS) aspects of nanoparticles.

My post received a response from Kristen Kulinowski from Rice University, who was kind enough to direct me to the full list of participants, which can be found here (Check Sections 1-36 for Workshop 1 and 2-78 for Workshop 2).

According to Dr. Kulinowski, the full list of participants would reveal a far more international group of participants than is reflected in the Steering Committee. However, from my perspective the lists still remain largely US-centric. In the first workshop held in Bethesda, MD nearly 80% of the participants are from the US. In the second workshop held in Switzerland the ratio improves, but not as much as you might expect based on its location in Europe, with still nearly 50% of the participants coming from the US.

My other question with this work was where are the channels of cooperation between it and other international groups looking at establishing standards for EHS in nanotechnology, namely with Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM International).

Dr. Kulinowski conceded that there was still too much fragmentation in efforts to find solutions regarding EHS concerns on nanotechnology. However, she seemed to offer as a possible solution a new initiative at ICON to create an international Wiki on occupational practices for safe handling of nanomaterials to address this problem.

It is an innovative approach and may help pool the breadth of knowledge and understanding we have regarding the subject. But it seems leadership is still the lacking component.

Nanotoxicological research lacks the necessary measurement tools to address the specific problems of nanoparticles, some standardization of testing and measurement needs to be established so that two seemingly identical experiments do not come up with polar opposite results, and, perhaps most importantly, there needs to be some mechanism that will bring new research into international governmentâ''s policies and regulations.

Again, I applaud the work of ICON to try and gather as much information as possible, albeit it from a slightly less international perspective than I would have thought.

But information is not enough. Hopefully we can arrive at some wisdom on the subject and that some international body can make that wisdom actionable.

Graphene versus Carbon Nanotubes: Which will be applied to commercial electronics first?

Some 17 years ago, when carbon nanotubes (CNTs) were first discovered, physicists and material scientists were fascinated with this new form of carbon that forever changed the paradigm of the three basic forms of carbon: diamond, graphite and amorphous carbon.

Since then a lot of hope and a lot of research has been devoted to exploiting some of some CNTs beneficial characteristics to electronics applications, namely their charged-carrier mobility.

But working with CNTs has always been hampered by the intrinsic difficulty in putting them where you want them and connecting them.

While research continued in earnest on CNTs, a hypothetical material called grapheneâ''single, one-atom thick, sheets of graphiteâ''was gaining more attention. Graphene had only been postulated about until 2004 when researchers at the University of Manchester in the UK produced some of the material.

A new star was born. The world of solid-state physics was enamored with a new â''wonderâ'' material that displayed many of the positive characteristics of CNTs in electronic applications, but was easier to interconnect and could follow relatively simple chemical doping techniques.

Unlike CNTs, which require a different set of processing techniques from silicon, graphene shared the same set of processing techniques currently used for silicon. The difference being that silicon becomes pretty useless at the nanometer scale.

In just a few short years, graphene has begun to show some research results within the last few months, with a number of research groups announcing some positive results for graphene in electronics applications, not the least of which being IBM

and the University of Manchester researchers touting the â''smallest transistor ever madeâ''.

But there are some big questions remaining about graphene, including it doesnâ''t have brilliant intrinsic switching propertiesâ''you can change it slightly but you canâ''t seem to turn it completely offâ'¿so far. And the deposition of stable graphene thin-films is still pretty tricky.

Whether these problems will be easier to surmount than the problems that have plagued CNTs remains to be seen. But it appears that for now the new darling of the nanomaterial world is graphene.

Double Amputee Oscar Pistorius Can Try for Olympics

The decision last week to allow the South African double amputee Oscar Pistorius to try out for the Olympics, widely reported around the world on May 16 and 17, ends a four-year dispute about whether his artificial legs might actually give him and others like him an unfair advantage. Ironically, advances in prosthetics engineering had been so impressive, a runner born without legs might do better using artificial legs than a full-bodied athlete. At that time, the Paris-based freelancer Marlowe Hood gave a probing account of the situation and the complex issues it raised in Spectrum Onlineâ''a discussion that's still worth revisiting.

Here's how Marlowe reacted to the recent news, taking a quick break from reporting in Burma on cyclone recovery efforts. â''When I saw double-amputee Oscar Pistorius burn up the track at the Athens Paralympics four years ago, I was so amazed I had to remember to breathe. As he crossed the finish line of the 200 meter dash with a new world record, the possibility hit me like a hammer: what if this 17-year old boy could one day run fast enough to line up against the world's top sprinter in the Olympics? That day, it seems, has come.â''

Photovoltaic Moore's Law Will Make Solar Competitive by 2015

UPDATE: Due to the great discussion generated here, the author has written a follow-up post. Read Is Photovoltaic Moore Law Really on Track?

Photovoltaic specialists met last week, May 12-16, in San Diego under the auspices of the IEEE Electron Devices Society, for their 33rd annual meeting. For the first time the meeting included a two-day breakout session, â''The PV Accelerator Forum,â'' devoted to exploring how photovoltaics can be kick-started to achieve an earlier commercial breakthrough. There were some substantial surprises.

If youâ''d asked a solar expert ten or fifteen years ago what the game plan was for photovoltaics, the gist would have been this: develop silicon cells, relying on scraps and techniques from the semiconductor industry, without expectation of a commercial breakthrough; then turn to second-generation thin-film materials like CIGS and cad-tel, which would be much cheaper and more fit for mass production. By early this decade, however, it seemed clear that PV was not shaping up as planned. The second generation materials were not materializing on schedule, and the cost of solar electricity was still nowhere near competitive. Particularly disconcerting was the 2002 decision of British Petroleum, which was billing itself as the worldâ''s biggest solar company (among other things), to terminate U.S. production of cad-tel and amorphous silicon cells, as reported in the January 2003 issue of Spectrum magazine.

Now there are some new twists and turnsâ''essentially, three very positive developments that would not have been generally anticipated a decade ago. First, silicon-based solar technology has decoupled from the semiconductor industry and is achieving steady cost reductions, so that those following PV discern a kind of Mooreâ''s law at work. In 2005, production of silicon for solar cells already surpassed production of silicon for semiconductors.

Second, the industry has become so confident in that evolutionary path, policymakers and planners have started to set dates when they expect PV-generated electricity to be competitive with the major sources of electricity sold on the grid now. And third, while the incremental path promises a commercial breakthrough within ten years, itâ''s suddenly looking like second generation technology may be arriving after allâ''in which case wide commercialization of PV could occur much sooner.

In recent years, global PV production has been increasing at a rate of 50 percent per year, so that accumulated global capacity doubles about every 18 months. The PV Mooreâ''s law states that with every doubling of capacity, PV costs come down by 20 percent. In 2004, installing PV cost about $7 per watt, compared to $1/W for wind, which at that time was beginning to stand on its own feet commercially, Last, year, as recently noted in this blog, average global solar costs had come down to between $4 and $5 per watt, right in line with the PV Mooreâ''s law. Extrapolate those gains out six or seven years, and PV costs will be below $2/W, making photovolatics competitive with 2004 wind.

Remember, wind electricity generally is generated in large farms, so that its price has to be competitive with electricity generated from other sourcesâ''thatâ''s the wholesale electricity cost that accounts for only about half of total electricity costs in a typical customerâ''s bill. But solar, being distributed, competes with the retail priceâ''if the PV generating cost is comparable to the total delivered cost of electricity, which can be as high as 20 cents per kilowatthour in the United States and upwards of 30 cents in Japan, thatâ''s good enough.

Planners and regulator are starting to believe in the PV Mooreâ''s law. The European Unionâ''s PV Tech Platform has set the year 2015 for achieving â''grid parityâ''â''the point where solar electricity can be sold competitively into the grid. As early as 2010, solar electricity prices in extreme southern Europe might go as low as 17 or 18 cents/kWh. California also expects to see grid parity within a decade, and Southern California Edison has a program to put subsidized PV roofs on large commercial buildings, predicated on the goal of obtaining PV capacity at a cost of $3.50/W within five years.

So some noteworthy things have happened on the way to this yearâ''s PV accelerator forum. But what was getting the most buzz in the technical conference, which attracted a record number of attendees from around the world, was next-generation PV. Sessions dedicated to next-generation materials like cooper indium diselenide and cadmium telluride were packed to the gills, with people craning their heads in from the hallways to catch snatches of talks. One company is particular has been growing like gangbusters in the last couple of years, with a rather simple CdTe module that it claims to be producing at a cost of barely over $1/W.

If those claims hold, this may beâ''hold your breathâ''the breakthrough everybodyâ''s been waiting for.

Energy Efficiency Is the Best Policy, Says ASCEE Report

Because of largely invisible and under-appreciated gains in energy efficiency throughout the economy, U.S energy consumption per dollar output is about half today what it was in 1970, according to a new report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. The report might be dismissed as special pleading, but its finding are generally consistent with a major U.S. climate technology report, which found that efficiency improvements and conservation offer by far the best near-term prospects for cutting energy use and greehouse gas emissions, as IEEE Spectrum noted two years ago.

Consistent with the Bush administrationâ''s climate task force findings, the ASCEE report says that the United States could reduce its energy consumption by 25-30 percent over the next two or three decades, by aggressively exploiting opportunities for improved efficiency. Taking a close look at the most recent data on investments in energy efficiency, ASCEE determined that buildings accounted for by far the greatest share of new investment in 2004, nearly 60 percent. Transportation was a distant second, at 11 percent.

No wonder the â''energy efficiency utilityâ''â''the utility that in effect generates â''negawattsâ'' (watts saved) by encouraging its customers to use energy more efficientlyâ''has become the latest buzzword in the electric power world.

Out of Africa: a Hacker writes his final code

Guido1.jpg

One of my favorite Africans died the other day in Nairobi. Guido Sohne was a brilliant, if unheralded, software programmer who worked for Microsoft in Kenya. He was found dead in his living room. People discovered him when he didnâ''t turn up for work. Guido was 35 years old.

He was best known as a tireless and passionate advocate for open-source software in Africa. His decision to join Microsoft last year represented a decisive turn for him technically, an attempt to build a bridge between proprietary and open approaches to codewriting. He had long endured the privations of working solo as a programmer in Africa. The new job brought him a measure of stability -- and recognition -- he long had missed.

Guido and I go back some years; he was a close companion when I lived in Accra in 2003. Guido was witty and sharp and always ready to debate arcane points, either about technology or development. We spent many hours together and, when my teenage son visited Accra for a summer, Guido tutored him on computer games that bewildered me but that he found easy to explain. Any techies who visited Accra were sure to meet Guido. He was tall and handsome and spoke with a sense of authority and confidence that was unusual in an African city. When Ethan Zuckerman met Guido in 2004, he was immediately impressed and noted that, while a critic of Microsoft at the time, Guido shrewly realized that piracy of Microsoft programs was actually helping to entrench the company in Africa.

Guido's sudden death remains a mystery at this point. Maybe he was felled by a heart attack. Foul play seems to be ruled out. His life was unfinished; he never created, for instance, a landmark program or piece of writing about the creation of new technologies in Africa. But for the scores of African hackers in Accra and elsewhere around the continent, he was a role model, always raising the bar, insistently asking others to do better. He will be missed.

Your Face Here: The instant virtual you could soon be everywhere you look

Face-Animation.jpgThe last time I had my head turned into a virtual me, it took hours. The results were impressive. Weird, but impressive. Have a look.

So when I heard about a company getting ready to launch a technology that promised to create a virtual me instantly, without a long makeup session, multiple takes, and extended processing time, I thought it was worth taking a look. Potentially, I could collect virtual meâ''s. Not sure what Iâ''d do with them, but Iâ''ve got all sorts of things sitting on my computer Iâ''m not entirely sure what to do with.

Unfortunately, while X-iD, based in Redwood Shores, Calif., and Singapore, could show me other virtual people, it wasnâ''t quite ready to live demo and create a virtual me on the spot; Iâ''ll have to wait until June 15 for that. This week, X-iD was introducing a face recognition system for personal computer security (you smile at your webcam

instead of typing in a password when you boot up your computer). The 3-D head comes later.

Both products stem from the companyâ''s face recognition software, used for several years in building security. The software reconstructs a 3-D image of a face from a mug shot and simple identification of key points, like the eyes, sides of the face, and the ears. In building security applications, X-iD uses the 3-D image to recognize a person entering the building even if his head is turned or tilted. It recently occurred to company principals that not only are these image files really cool, they could have consumer applications.

Hence the computer log-on, available now for $19 or free for a one-month trial. And on June 15, X-iD will launch a social network (I wish they had called it something else, but everybody wants to play in the social network game these days) in which you can create your own virtual face and stick it onto an avatar or into a greeting card. The application is currently called FaceTheater, soon to be renamed Tycoona. (You actually donâ''t have to use your own face, anything with basic eyes, mouth, nose will workâ''the sphinx, your dog, Mona Lisa.) Eventually, the company hopes video game companies will use the technology to put you (or your friends or enemies) into video games to make them a little more personal.

Who Will Resurrect the Electric Car?

Two years ago, the controversial documentary film â''Who Killed the Electric Car?â'' caused quite a stir, with its claims that GM went out of its way to discredit and destroy the electric car it had developed, the EV1, preferring to keep its customers hooked on the gasoline engine. At the time, the director of Sonyâ''s electric car post-mortem, Chris Paine, hoped to follow it up with a documentary that heâ''d call, â''Who Saved the Electric Car?â'' Evidently he gave up for lack of plausible protagonists. Perhaps itâ''s time for him to take another look.

The auto industry turnaround wizard Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan and Renault, is promising to be the person who will breathe life back into the idea of an all-electric, zero-emissions car. Reporting on Nissanâ''s recent performance the week of May 12, Ghosn said that Nissan would introduce an electric car in the United States and Japan in 2010 and market it worldwide in 2012. Nissanâ''s strategic partner Renault announced earlier this year that it will produce electric cars for sale in Israel and Denmark. But Nissan would be the first to market an electric car globally, and the company is eying a whole range of electric vehicles, from city cars to small vans.

It seems to be Ghosnâ''s intention to leapfrog the Chevrolet Volt, the electric car that GM plans to introduce in 2010. GM bills the Volt as a true electric car and not a hybrid, because its electric motor will always turn its wheels. But critics contend itâ''s still a kind of hybrid, inasmuch as a backup gasoline engine will recharge its lithium ion batteries for ranges greater than 60 kilometers. Just recently, GM got much more specific about the Volt design, as described in Spectrum, but the issue of whether the car deserves to be called a true EV lingers.

Ghosn puts a formidable name and reputation behind the behind the old vision of a pure, zero-emissions EV. After taking the reins at Nissan, he engineered an instantaneous rescue, making himâ''a French citizen born in Brazil and raised in Lebanonâ''a national hero in Japan. In 2006, the year after he became CEO of Renault as well, Kirk Kirkorian tried to concoct a GM-Nissan-Renault alliance, with Ghosn at the helm.

Ghosn enunciated his electric vision this week in the context of disappointing financial results. Nissanâ''s profits, though better than those at Fiat, Peugeot, VW or BMW, were deemed disappointing. And the companyâ''s most recent three year plan, for the first time since Ghosn took over, did not meet targets. Europeâ''s financial press put more emphasis on those developments than on Ghosnâ''s plans to resuscitate the EV.

Still, Ghosnâ''s bold announcements make the quest for the EV a two-way contest, at least, and is sure to reinvigorate debate about what went wrong the last time around and whether things could go better now. â''Who Killed the Electric Car?â'' made a good case that California air regulators had caved to industry pressure, seduced by the fantasy that hydrogen cars would provide a better path to zero emissions. But the film was weaker on technology, failing to fully acknowledge that car battery improvements had fallen short of expectations. Maybe itâ''s time for director Paine to dust off his plans for â''Who Saved?,â'' taking recent advances in lithium ion batteries and supercapacitors into account.

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