Tech Talk iconTech Talk

Electric Supergrids Gaining Traction

Incomplete and constrained transmission grids pose a serious impediment to the use of renewable energy sources such as wind power. Proposals launched over the past week show that support for more lines is going mainstream.

Last week none other than Greenpeace called for an underwater power grid criss-crossing the North Sea to accelerate the installation of dozens of new offshore wind farms. In "A North Sea Electricity Grid [R]Evolution", Greenpeace Belgium and Brussels-based environmental consulting firm 3E map out an offshore network composed of 6,200 kilometers of undersea lines. According to their models, this grid extension could add 68 gigawatts of wind power capacity by 2020 -- enough to meet 13% of net power demand of seven North Sea countries.

Yesterday the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Competitiveness, an alliance of corporate CEOs, university presidents and labor leaders, lent its support to grid expansion, urging the next U.S. president to create a "national transmission superhighway." The proposal is part of a broader "100-Day Energy Action Plan". The Council would empower the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to determine when and where expanded transmission capacity is needed, overriding state authorities. "As with the interstate highway system and the information superhighway, our leaders must knit together the current patchwork of regulations and oversight into a seamlessly connected electrical power highway," states the plan.

Proposals that need to be debated.

The North Sea Grid a la Greenpeace:


A $100 Billion Plan to Create 2 Million Green Jobs

A report released today (Sept. 9) by John Podestaâ''s Center for American Progress lays out a plan that could create 2 million new jobs in two years by spending $100 billion to â''jumpstartâ'' a clean energy economy. The report, written by economist Robert Pollin and colleagues at the University of Massachusettsâ''s Political Economy Research Institute, would focus investments on energy-efficient building, mass transportation, smart electrical grids, wind and solar, and advanced biofuels. Funds could come from the proceeds of auctioned carbon emission credits and could be allocated in the form of tax credits, direct government spending, and loan guarantees.

Lame Battery Equals Great Bike Ride

Thanks to the good folks at Garmin, who had the foresight to equip their $650 Edge 705 cycling computer with what must be the worst rechargeable battery they could find, today I had a wonderful early autumn ride through the prairie-grass laden fields of suburban Minneapolis. I was unconcerned about my heart rate, my pedaling cadence, my location, elevation or speed. The distance I traveled mattered not a whit. And time just didn't matter.

More LHC!

In addition to being the biggest particle physics experiment in history, the Large Hadron Collider will likely also soon win the prize for most random collection of media attempting to describe it. The gamut is huge: from the sublime to the mundane, from education to infotainment, and finally to the outright wackadoo, the experiment is so complicated that everyone is having a crack at explaining it to his or her target demographic. (Though the hip-hop-particle-physicist demographic is likely quite small, I would argue that it is also the most awesome.)

Now, a nascent comic book from PhD comics (via Boingboing). The LHC is the kind of thing the cliche "a picture is worth a thousand words" was invented for.


LHC Countdown: T minus one


My God, it's full of stars.

Tonight at 8 pm on the History Channel, Johns Hopkins University theoretical physicist David Kaplan hosts a program that will explain the significance of the Large Hadron Collider, which is the largest particle physics experiment in history and after twenty-some years of design and construction is finally ready to be fired up tomorrow. The show is called "The Next Big Bang."

Later today I'll also be posting a video about the LHC (albeit with considerably lower production values and a less hyperbolic title). I was at CERN in July and got a chance to see parts of the 27-kilometer accelerator ring, 100 meters underground, a couple of days before they finished construction and closed it up. After the experiments get going in the tunnels, the radiation will be too intense to allow anyone in.

The picture above shows the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), one of four equidistant experimental particle detectors that are strung around the accelerator ring like Cathedral-sized beads. CMS is on the French side; its fraternal twin, ATLAS, is on the Swiss side. The LHC is so big that it spans the border of the two countries.

Follow IEEE Spectrum on Twitter

Well, better late than never. Follow IEEE Spectrum on Twitter for updates from the Web site and reports from the field, like the sweet tweets from senior editor Tekla Perry as she ogles new goodies at Tech Crunch 50 this week.

FDA Holds Public Hearings on Nanotechnology

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has decided to take on the daunting task of figuring out how the size of a material (versus its chemical composition) affects its toxicity.

In keeping with the theme of pithy little size innuendos like â''size mattersâ'', this is a big nut to crack. A lot of work, research, development of new tools, creating of new measurement standards, and lots of money and time will be required to sort it out.

But instead of â''letâ''s roll up our sleeves and get to workâ'' we get â''letâ''s have a public meeting.â''

There must be some real or imagined benefit to engaging in this kind of public theater, but I imagine whatever it is it will not likely bring us any closer to determining how the size of particles imparts its level of toxicity.

The assumption behind these types of meetings is to foster an environment of openness and transparency with the general public.

But I canâ''t help but think that TNTLog has it about right when it laments about public acceptance of technologies whether â''any kind of education, or even twenty years in a Soviet Gulag would change such entrenched views?â''

Are Network Analysis Techniques Successful in Iraq?

In his new book, The War Within, the Washington Post's Bob Woodward claims that breakthrough techniques used to "locate, target and kill key individuals in extremist groups" helped turn the tide against insurgents in Iraq last year. In an interview last night on CBS's 60 Minutes, Woodward shies away from disclosing any details about these techniques--1:32 in--for fear of compromising special operations. But he likens the "special capability" to the introduction of the tank and the airplane in combat:

In September 2006, I wrote about new network analysis capabilities being developed for the intelligence community in an article entitled "Modeling Terrorists." In it I highlighted the work of several groups:

[Prof. Barry] Silvermanâ''s group [at the University of Pennsylvania] focuses on individual agents, but other modelers take a more organizational approach, simulating large-scale social networks on supercomputers and churning out trillions of bytes of data. Models built by Edward MacKerrow at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Charles Macal at Argonne National Laboratory, Alok R. Chaturvedi at Purdue University, Desmond Saunders-Newton at BAE Systems, and Kathleen Carley at Carnegie Mellon University use thousands or millions of relatively simple agents to examine how networks form and mutate, how individuals communicate, and who leads and who follows. Carleyâ''s programs, which process real data, stand out for their ability to help analysts imagine how a terrorist network might adaptâ''or notâ''after its leader is killed or captured.

Such work, concentrated in the United States and sustained by tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in funding by various intelligence organizations, including the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, points to a new era in training and intelligence analysis. The experts developing these systems are reticent about exactly how their programs are being used. But outside observers say it is a good bet that software designed to identify the critical people in a terrorist organization will be usedâ''if it hasnâ''t been alreadyâ''to draw up lists that prioritize which people should be killed or captured so as to do maximum damage to the organization.

There is, of course, no way to know whether Woodward was referring to these kind of social simulations and network analysis techniques. But the recent decrease in violence in Iraq coupled with Woodward's assertions suggest that if nothing else, U.S. intelligence has some new, very accurate arrows in its quiver. And at the very least, these sorts of research projects have contributed to a better understanding of how networks such as Al Qaeda in Iraq function.

Although it is virtually impossible for people outside the military and intelligence communities to assess the real impact of social network analysis tools on counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq, we know that they are being used there as part of the effort to break up networks that build and deploy IEDs, as Spectrum executive editor Glenn Zorpette points out in his current article in Spectrum, "Countering IEDs":

Attacking the network boils down in part to analyzing social networks, collecting and analyzing intelligence, and persistently surveilling places. It has been a difficult challenge, depending as it has on wildly incongruous data, tips, and reports from surveillance systems, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, and from local people suspicious of activity in their neighborhoods. â''Itâ''s a challenging new frontier,â'' says [Colonel Barry L.] Shoop. â''Combining an ­understanding of the psychology and sociology of terrorist networks with probabilistic modeling, complexity theory, forensic science, pattern recognition, and data mining to predict human behavior is new.â''

These techniques are so new that it's a good bet that targeted networks haven't figured out ways to counter them. Yet.

Hot Chips: Autonomous cars with a lead foot, and the incredulous Hulk



The Hot Chips conference is the hands-down favorite of the chip design crowd. The atmosphere is more relaxed, the media presence is less intense, and in general the mood is more congenial than at the heavy hitters like IEDM and ISSCC.

They had good coffee, so everyone congregated on patios between sessions and lingered in the California sunshine. One engineer bore a stunning resemblance to Late Elvis, but turned out to be much more reticent than his lookalike. To encourage the masses back into the auditorium, an ethereal elderly man with flowing white hair, tucked into a slightly-too-large brown suit and formal white shirt, stalked about ringing a shrill bell. I found out later that the wrangler was A Very Big Deal (he was the founder of the Hot Chips conference).

The best parts of the conference, and the parts that best reflected the comparative intimacy of this event, were the keynotes and the Monday night panel that looked back on 20 years of â''missed predictions.â''

The first keynote was about Stanley, Stanford's autonomous VW Touareg that won DARPA's first Grand Challenge to the tune of US $2 million. Head researcher Sebastian Thrun presented an overview of what it took to get from concept to completion, along with clips that often looked like outtakes from America's Funniest Home Videos.

The vehicles â''learnedâ'' to drive themselves based on human tutelage. Thrun described the process: a graduate student would drive the car, the car would record his speed and movements, and later reference them when left to its own autonomous devices. But Thrun said that after several such tutorials, the car had become overly timid.

â''Then I drove it, â'' said Thrun, â''and, as a German, the car became 20 percent faster.â''



The second keynote, delivered by SunPower founder Richard Swanson, was when things really got interesting.

SunPower has been developing and evolving their photovoltaics for solar power systems since the late 1980s. Swanson recounted the tough times they faced back when solar was laughed out of the room, and had a bit of a gloat at the idea that in 2008, fossil fuels are expensive enough to make solar cells worth it. Now the company has funding, government subsidies, and lots of investors.

Swansonâ''s first mistake was a back-of-his-palm ad hoc calculation of how much electricity a solar farm could generate over ten years. â''If you installed one megawatt a day in photovoltaics,â'' he said, â''youâ''d have 360 MW at the end of the year, which is 3.6 gigawatts in 10 yearsâ''thatâ''s a nuclear power plant right there! Itâ''s the amount of power a nuclear power plant would generateâ''except if you ordered it today, youâ''d have it in 15 years.â''

Swanson had worked himself into a froth. â''We could supply the entire country by 2040 at reasonable growth rates.â'' A side benefit, he said, would be an 80 percent CO2 reduction by 2050.

The question and answer session that followed was run of the mill (â''What are your dominant failure modes,â'' etc.) until one engineer walked up to the mic, and promptly and thoroughly Hulked out.

His shoulders bulged, his shirt ripped, and his toes tore through his shoes.* â''Sunpower able to do this purely because of government subsidies!â'' he roared. â''Absurd to say you can do something as good as nuke plant! Self-righteousness of keynote speech and play fast and loose with facts make HULK SMAAASH AAARGH!!â''

Swanson disagreed, putting the annual capacity of solar at 30 percent, where nuclear plants are at 80 percent.

â''Nuke plants at 92 percent!!!â'' The Hulk bellowed and tossed several surprised engineers at the stage. â''To say 3 GW absurd!â''

Swanson protested meekly but agreed to downgrade his projections from one power plant to one half of a power plant.


*Disclaimer: I exaggerate somewhat. Having returned to his normal size, the engineer later told me that he thought the projections were off-base, and that his main argument with the talk was that it sounded like a marketing presentation rather than a technical overview.

Court Orders that Nanomaterials Company Has to Pay Inventors their Royalties

In a decision last week that should hearten inventors around the world, the British High Courts have upheld Neuftec Limitedâ''s license rights against a claim by Oxonica Energy Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of Oxonica PLCâ''the UK-based nanomaterials company.

The case revolved around the Enviroxâ'¢ formulation, which is advertised as â''a fuel borne nanocatalyst for diesel engines which reduces fuel consumption with savings of 5-10% and reduces particulate emissions by up to 15%.â''

According to the news release relating the courtâ''s decision, problems began in October 2006 when Oxonica told Neuftec it had produced an 'alternative' to the patented Enviroxâ'¢ formulation and that Neuftec would therefore not be eligible for continued royalty payments.

When informed of this decision, Neuftec struck out on its own to market the product. As a result, Oxonica in February 2007 initiated legal proceedings against Neuftec initially to keep the company from competing with it and to claim that that sales of of the so-called 'Envirox 2' were not caught by the terms of the Neuftec licence and therefore should not trigger royalty payments by Oxonica. It later dropped the non-compete claim, but maintained its case against making royalty payments.

In a 40-page judgment, the judge ruled that "...royalties are payable in respect of any product, process or use falling within the scope of any claim of the PCT application as appended to the License Deed, and nothing else. Envirox 2 is a Licensed Product as defined, and attracts royalties accordingly. The claim fails and the counterclaim succeeds...".

There has been no word as of yet whether there will be appeal of the decision. In the meantime, this decision marks the end of one of the more intriguing legal cases to come out of the world of nanotechnology and IP disputes.

The result seems to indicate that efforts to develop an 'alternative' to patented product that you have a license agreement with and subsequently avoid royalty payments can be a tricky business.

In a striking coincidence, the Envirox product proved disappointing in testing by Petrol Ofisi, the Turkish national oil-and-gas company, after Oxonica had informed Neuftec that it had developed an alternative to the patented product


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Load More