Tech Talk iconTech Talk

U.S. Government Rolls Out Plan to Invest in Energy Efficiency

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) today announced a strategy to invest US $3.2 billion in energy efficiency and conservation projects.

Vice President Joe Biden and Energy Secretary Steven Chu presided over a press conference in which they said the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program will provide funding for initiatives that focus on improving energy efficiency and reducing fossil fuel emissions at the local level. The plan will be financed by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Obama administration's new economic stimulus package.

The DOE said the grants will support energy audits and energy efficiency retrofits in residential and commercial buildings, the development and implementation of advanced building codes and inspections, and the creation of financial incentive programs for energy efficiency improvements.

The initiative will also direct funds to transportation programs that conserve energy, projects to reduce and capture methane and other greenhouse gas emissions from landfills, renewable energy installations on government buildings, energy efficient traffic signals and street lights, deployment of district heating and cooling systems, and other similar schemes.

"These investments will save taxpayer dollars and create jobs in communities around the country," said Biden. "Local leaders will have the flexibility in how they put these resources to work; but we will hold them accountable for making the investments quickly and wisely to spur the local economy and cut energy use."

To make sure the funding is used responsibly, the DOE intends to require grant recipients to report on the number of jobs maintained, energy saved, renewable energy capacity installed, greenhouse gas emissions reduced, and finances leveraged.

"The funding will be used for the cheapest, cleanest, and most reliable energy technologies we have â''- energy efficiency and conservation â''- which can be deployed immediately," said Chu. "The grants also empower local communities to make strategic investments to meet the nation's long-term clean energy and climate goals."

Nanotechnology in the UK

Once I gathered myself up off the floor from my fit of hysterical laughter, I thought I should comment on the source of my laughing, a press release for a new report on the status of nanotechnology in the UK.

The bit that had me doing belly laughs was the juxtaposition of the phrases â''in-depth analysisâ'' on the status of nanotechnology in the UK and â''99 pagesâ''. Okay, I suppose if you wrote a pretty dense piece just on the research and commercialized products, 99 pages would go a long way. But one look at the table of contents finally sent my giggling into uncontrollable laughter:







I suppose sooner or later they will actually get around to giving an in-depth analysis of nanotech in the UK, but that may not be before page 79, leaving a scant 20 pages to sort it all out. I donâ''t know maybe itâ''s me, but I thought it was funny.

I also donâ''t know who wrote this report, but I have a theory that it may come from some UK-based outfit due to its insistence on the following argument: the â''UK has the world's first nanotechnology initiativeâ''. This thought reminds me of whenever I complain about the London Underground being cramped, without air conditioning and generally an unpleasant experience, I always hear back â''Yes, but it was the first in the world.â''

I would prefer the last in the world just as long as the mere thought of it doesnâ''t send shivers up my spine.

Different Messenger, Same Message for Nanotechnology Safety

It was reported today that the National Research Council has released a new book, Review of Federal Strategy for Nanotechnology-Related Environmental, Health, and Safety Research.

Apparently the NRC has discovered â''serious weaknesses in the government's plan for research on the potential health and environmental risks posed by nanomaterialsâ''. I guess Iâ''ll have to spend $32.75 to find out what those weaknesses might be. But one can safely assume that one of them may be that working out the toxicity of a particle based solely on its size is tough to do.

These reports come out every now and then (maybe more like a steady stream) from ever more substantial organizations behind each of them. But they all seem to arrive at the same conclusions that become with each repetition slightly more empty.

As TNTLog pointed out earlier this year, after reading a similar report from the Geneva-based International Risk Governance Council, "The report says the same as all the other â''riskâ'' reports since the first royal society one. Seems like there is nothing else to say!â''

I guess we know at this point not enough is known, we need to know more, more research needs to be done, more funding is needed to conduct the research. So could we now move on to the next part already?

Model Robot Takes to the Catwalk in Japan

The fashion world has a new face to envy. At five-foot-two, she may not measure up to her competition on the runway, but then she works for free and never complains about her diet, because she doesn't have one. She's a robot.

Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) demonstrated the new humanoid recently at a show during Tokyo's Fashion Week. The HRP-4C robot strutted her stuff alongside the world's most famous models, wearing a skintight silver and black outfit designed by her creators (which she actually wears all the time) that carries a price tag of US $2 million, according to a report from Reuters.

Her human counterparts have nothing to fear, though, from the upstart in their midst, as HRP-4C just doesn't have the elegant moves that they have down pat just yet. In fact, she's downright clumsy by comparison (see video).

"Our robot can't move elegantly like the real models that are here today," Shuji Kajita, director of humanoid robot engineering at AIST, told Reuters. "It'll take another 20 to 30 years of research to make that happen."

Even so, she's got a nice smile and an outgoing personality, enough so to charm an audience of cynical fashionistas. And that's real progress.

Regulations? We don't need no stinkin' regulations

Australia seems to be a real hot bed for nanotechnology in food debates.

They are up in arms about the potential for nanotechnology in food and food packaging even though one of the lead NGOs, Choice, has no idea whether there is any nanotechnology in either their food or their food packaging.

â''Choice says it does not know for sure if they are present in Australia but given the global prevalence believes they could already be on sale here in confectionery packaging, bottle coatings and PET drink bottles.â''

This is where I would like to see these debates start:

You understand that there are elements in the plastic of your food packaging right now that on their own would cause you to become ill if you ingested them in large quantities, right?

So, we want to talk about the risk of the final plastic products used in packaging, not in the individual ingredients that make up that plastic, okay?

Finally, since we are talking almost exclusively about nanoclays that serve as fillers for polymers when it comes to food packaging, we can be spared discussions about any other nanomaterial, correct?

What am I thinking? Thereâ''s going to be endless references to carbon nanotubes and fish and losing our privacy and a monolithic industry out to poison us for a profit.

You can imagine why the local industry representative, The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC), in the Australian Food News article referenced above welcomes this debate.

Spacewalking Astronauts Unable to Install Cargo Platform

On their third and final spacewalk of the STS-119 mission to the International Space Station (ISS), astronauts from the space shuttle Discovery had to give up on trying to install a cargo container and have moved on to other business.

NASA announced earlier today that astronauts Joseph Acaba and Richard Arnold have "secured" the Unpressurized Cargo Carrier Attachment System in place but were unable to fix a balky pin that had been inserted upside-down by the crew of the last shuttle mission to the ISS.

So the pair of spacewalkers settled for tethering the platform to the space station to keep it from moving around. The space agency then ordered them to install a new coupler on the Crew Equipment Translation Aid cart and to lubricate the snares on one end of the space station's robotic arm.

Properly affixing the cargo carrier will have to wait for a future mission, as the STS-119 crew must now prepare to return home to make way for the arrival in the days ahead of a Russian-American crew of two, dubbed Expedition 19, aboard a Soyuz spacecraft.

Discovery is scheduled to undock from the ISS Wednesday, bringing back astronaut Sandra Magnus. Japan's Koichi Wakata, who flew aboard Discovery will be joined later this week by Russian Gennady Padalka and American Michael Barratt from the Soyuz, which should lift off Thursday.

Colbert wins ISS contest but don't expect a Colbert Mars rover

Remember last month's contest to name the International Space Station's Node 3? Well, NASA has just been punked! Stephen Colbert takes the crown -- and by a long shot.

The Associated Press reports that Colbert took in 230,539 votes, beating NASA's most popular choice, "Serenity," which took a mere 40,000.

Now, NASA wants you to name the next Mars rover, but this time no write-ins are allowed.

Can you blame them?

Last month, NASA asked the public to vote to name the Node 3, the latest addition to the International Space Station. The site gave four choices that included the celestial-sounding names of "Earthrise" and "Legacy." And then there was the write-in vote.

Early on, the leading candidate was Xenu--an intergalactic dictator, according to Scientology. Not to be outdone by a mere supreme being, the guys at Comedy Central's Colbert Report rallied the show's followers to write-in "Colbert."

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Space Module: Colbert - Name NASA's Node 3 After Stephen
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorMark Sanford

Out was Xenu, and in was Colbert.

But William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations, refused to commit to naming the Node 3 after Colbert (skip to 6:05 below for the relevant exchange).

A NASA representative told the AP that the space agency reserves the right to name Node 3, but will give "the most consideration" to the public's votes.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Space Module: Colbert - William Gerstenmaier
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorMark Sanford

It seems NASA liked the response it got for the naming experiment. Now, the space agency is upping the ante by asking us to name none other than the next Mars rover.

Unfortunately for Stephen Colbert only NASA's pre-approved names are in the running for possible names for the next Mars rover.

The choices come from primary and secondary school children and include "Journey," "Wonder" and "Amelia."

The comedian's critics might be a bit disappointed as well. I'm sure many of them would not mind sending Colbert to Mars. [I know, cheap joke.]

Taiwan Surprise

On March 2, Intel and TSMC announced that they will â''split the Atom:â'' Intel will port its ultra-low power Atom microprocessor cores to TSMC, essentially licensing the IP to customers who will have their Atom-based designs manufactured by TSMC. This was a big deal mainly because Intel usually doesnâ''t share its painstakingly designed toys: Atom, its line of tiny x86-based microprocessors, was designed to be used in low-power applications and for that reason was never intended for power users. So it ended up in a lot of netbooks.

Now, Intel is offering TSMC the Atom for its embedded systems customers. The collaboration will let TSMC offer its customers systems on a chip built around the very low power Atom design, for use in devices like cellphones, set-top boxes and cameras. Intelâ''s giving TSMC everything they need, including process, IPs, libraries, and design flows.

Well, almost everything. Intel held onto its high-k metal gate process. Thatâ''s a bit like licensing the Big Mac without the special sauce.

But I was confused.

Wasnâ''t Atom expressly designed for the 45-nm process technology?

And didnâ''t Intel just about kill itself trying to squeeze its transistors down to the 45 nm node?

The answer to both of my rhetorical questions, by the way, is yes. Recall that the diet plan that got Intelâ''s transistors squeezing into their 45-nm skinny jeans was the high-k metal gate process, based on a ground-breaking hafnium oxide (HfO2) gate dielectric.

The result was, and continues to be, impressive. In November 2008, an EETimes article painstakingly poked around the innards of Intel and AMD 45-nm processors and found that â''Intel's 45-nm high-K metal gate transistors have the best peak drive currents on the market with 1.36µA/µm for NFETs and just over a milliamp for PFETs.â''

So Intel is NOT giving TSMC HKMG? Isnâ''t that just a recipe for failure?

By the time I reached Intelâ''s spokesperson Chuck Mulloy, he had probably answered this question just one time too many. â''You are correct,â'' he e-mailed me, and I could read a heavy sigh between the lines. â''We are not sharing process technology with TSMC, or anyone else for that matter.â''

That raises a couple of questions, then:

1. How will the original 45nm HKMG Intel Atom compare to the 45nm non-HKMG Walmart TSMC brand? Letâ''s confine it to speed and power dissipation. Show all work.

2. Is there any logic circuit in the Atom that would not work without the 45nm HKMG process? For example, the Penryn's new FP division system is probably the only thing in it that would not work at an earlier node. Is there a similar situation in the Atom?

3. What will be the process technology of the Atom-based product? Since Intel has been shipping 45 nm products for a while, it is a matter of speculation if that will be the process technology node of the Atom-based product.

Despite knowing there was no way in h- e- double-hockey sticks I was going to get the answers from them, I went ahead anyway and asked TSMC spokesperson Michael Kramer*, and Intelâ''s Chuck Mulloy.

Mulloy: â''I can't contrast the power or performance because Atom is currently only built on our 45 nm process with high-K metal gate so there's nothing to compare it to.â''

To the question of what technology node TSMC would debut their off-brand Atoms at, Kramer* replied, â''We can not comment on the details of the technology node that Atom cores will be ported to, but you can assume that it is an advanced process node.â''

So Atoms, which are designed for 45-nm node process technology, are being ported to TSMC, which gets at best 10 percent of its business from customers that require the most up-to-date manufacturing technology (the rest is split pretty evenly between one-generation-behind and really older nodes like 90 and 130). And thatâ''s during a good year, which this is not (ASMLâ''s Bill Arnold told me that the $248 billion a year industry is down this year to an expected $200 billion).

But then, the big reveal!

â''I would also like to point out,â'' Kramer* continued, â''that TSMC has its own high-k/metal gate technology at the 40/45nm node.â'' [italics mine]

Did you know that? I didnâ''t.

About a billion papers for IEDM, ISSCC, SPIE, and the rest of the alphabet soup, have TSMC introducing HKMG at the 32 nm node (and in TSMCese, that means the 30 nm and/or 28 nm node. Letâ''s just pretend itâ''s 32. Now my head hurts.) â''TSMC and everyone else won't have high-k dielectrics and metal gates until 32nm,â'' Real World Technologies guru David Kanter confirmed later. â''For TSMC and IBM, that would be late 2009 or early 2010.â'' Kanter is an expert, and he kind of knows everything. Some kind of savant, maybe. So I almost trust his word over that of TSMC.

As you might imagine, I emailed Michael Kramer* immediately with a message that can be summed up as â''Say what now?â''

I havenâ''t heard a peep from the man since. I imagine him in the witness protection program, which would be rough on a Kramer* in Taiwanâ''heâ''ll have to wear a ski mask in perpetuity and have his vocal chords surgically altered.

As for the specifics of a 45-nm Atom microprocessor without Intelâ''s fabled high-k metal gate, Kanter says it is likely that without high-k metal gates, the transistors in TSMC-produced Atoms will run perhaps 20-30 percent more power consumption. â''But in some applications, you donâ''t care about that,â'' he says.

But then I went poking around on the interwebs some more and found this!

In December 2008, a paper published at EDSSC (motto: â''the other IEDMâ'') was called â''National Project on 45 to 32 nm Metal Oxide Semiconductor Field Effect Transistors for Next Century IC Fabricationsâ''â''by a university consortium in Taiwan! Which is working with TSMC!

When pressed, one of the authors, K.S. Chang-Liao, responded with great brevity: â''I will simply state the fact that this is a Project sponsored by MOEA, and work was done independently by professors in National Tsinghua University and NCTU and good discussion was underway with TSMC for adopting in using our IP.â''

The person who finally cleared all this up was Dr. Rajarao Jammy, a veteran IBM semiconductor insider who is now vice president of emerging technology at SEMATECH.

He basically told me to stop focusing psychotically on a single aspect of a complicated device. "In some senses, yes, there would be higher leakage,â'' he said. â''But it's not just about transistor leakage. There would be a whole range of other leakages and power related issues.â''

If you take the transistor itself, the leakage comes from many places. One might be junction-related leakage, threshold leakage, power dissipation from the metal lines themselves. All of this is power dissipation. Leakage is one issue, power is another.

The overall power management of the device comes from several factors. Gate leakage is only one of those. Controlling gate leakage, of course, helps keep overall leakage down--and Atom is one of those chips thatâ''s really aimed at really low standby power operation. However, when it comes to what kind of leakage a device maker, or rather an end-user might tolerate--it would all depend on the application.

â''The design cores could essentially be the same,â'' Jammy explained. â''How the system inside the chip operates might be the same, but they donâ''t necessarily need to be a mirror image of each other.â''

Chuck Mulloy has made it clear that the Intel-TSMC MOU isnâ''t clear yet on how their arrangement will function. It's possible that there are certain cores in the Atom processors that are going to be imported into another design TSMC might have. Different companies could be making their chips with Atom cores.

But, unlike most knockoffs, the chips will not be identical in every way.

Well, but regardless of whether my questions barked up the wrong tree, I still think it's interesting that TSMC has 45-nm HKMG but isnâ''t talking about it.

I wish you the best of luck, Michael Kramer!*


UPDATE 3/23/2009

After I posted this entry, TSMC released Michael Kramer from his carbonite prison just long enough for him to pen the following note.

Dear Ms. Adee,

My apologies for my late reply and I hope it's still useful to you.

Double-checking on the status of our 40/45nm HKMG took a little longer than

I expected.

While we have not put 40/45nm HKMG on our roadmap or made any official

announcements, we certainly have the capability to offer this if customers

have the need for it.

Having said that, unfortunately at this point we really can not confirm to

you whether the ported Atom SOC cores will use HKMG or not, or even if it

will be at the 40/45nm node. We welcome you to provide Spectrum readers

with your analysis and insight into the details of this agreement, but

again I apologize that TSMC can only say that the Atom SOC cores will be

ported to an advanced technology node.

Thanks again,

Michael Kramer

For IBM, the Allure of Sun Lies in Next-Gen Software Services

Longtime rivals in the network server market, IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems are in the midst of merger negotiations, according to numerous media accounts.

IBM's rumored offer to Sun of approximately US $7-8 billion would bolster Big Blue's share of the lucrative market for hardware to feed the gluttonous appetite of the growing Internet. Still, the long-term strategy for the Sun acquisition may lie as much in software as it does in hardware for IBM, as well as in reaching the hearts and minds of the software developers who create the state-of-the-art applications generating the need for evermore increasing processing power.

The IBM-Sun talks, first revealed yesterday by the Wall Street Journal, would give Sun stockholders $10 per share, ending the independence of one of Silicon Valley's most fiercely independent computer firms.

Founded in 1982 by a rag-tag cadre of young venture capitalists, engineers, and business wonks, Sun (which took its name from the Stanford University Network on which its engineers previously worked) made a big splash in the early workstation niche of the Eighties, where enterprises from manufacturers to universities needed more binary muscle than PCs could provide but less-expensive machines than those offered by companies such as (ironically) IBM. Sun even developed its own version of the Unix operating system, called Solaris, to make its minicomputers more user-friendly.

Leveraging its network-computing expertise, Sun really took off in the Nineties with a marketing campaign that was epitomized by the motto "The Network Is The Computer" as the World Wide Web exploded into economic importance. Astoundingly, Sun engineers next devised a new programming language, dubbed Java, to expedite the creation of network-based applications and then gave the language away for free, garnering an immense amount of interest (some would even say devotion) from the worldwide software development community.

During the go-go years of the Web revolution, Sun was a darling of Silicon Valley and Wall Street alike, but it was a honeymoon that had to ultimately settle for a troubled marriage. Sun soon found itself under pressure to lower its prices on mid-range computers, scaling them down in size, as competitors in the PC sector geared up the power of their low-cost machines to handle the duties of Web servers, as everyone jumped into the Internet business. Sun even had to fend off the advances of the titan of the software world, Microsoft Corp., in an epic legal battle over the use of Java that lasted years. Then the Web bubble burst, and Sun never fully recovered.

As an article in yesterday's New York Times rightly points out, Sun continues to be a major player in the lucrative area of data-center equipment, but the company has been in financial difficulty for years and has recently been looking for an alliance with a large corporate parent.

A deal with IBM would bring a rainbow of synergies to the two firm's families. Sun's fluid architectural skills and maverick research-and-development philosophy would bring an injection of West Coast zest to Big Blue's tradition-crusted management of innovation and product development. After cutting away overlapping technology, IBM would be able to promote an end-to-end line of server products capable of meeting the needs of providers from boutique outfits to massive enterprise data centers. Moreover, IBM was one of the first firms to embrace the possibilities of Java and became Sun's biggest champion in keeping the language as "pure" as possible in its fight with Microsoft, even encouraging its progress toward an "open" source-code model. As unofficial partners, Sun and IBM have devoted more software engineering brainpower to Java over the years than the rest of the computer industry combined.

Yet, it is in the potential of data-center services where an IBM-Sun coupling could yield the most profitable outcome. As a news analysis yesterday from Dow Jones pinpoints, the biggest names in computing have embarked on a looming war for the future business of corporate information technology needs. The latest sensation in this sector is known as "cloud computing," where enormous numbers of machines process shared commands via network protocols to deliver services to end users. Cloud computing depends on both scalable hardware and software to become "virtual" resources, and this is where Sun's engineering savvy and developer following could provide IBM with an unmatchable advantage.

Sun claims to have over one million dedicated independent Java developers, who stand at the forefront of creating next-generation applications that will employ the cloud-computing concept. Those applications, ranging from cellphone services to design engineering tools, will fuel the rush to the leasing of data-center resources when economic conditions rebound globally.

It's a long-term strategy that could position IBM ideally to dominate the future of computing (once again), as well as finally give Sun's engineering virtuosos a sound and stable home to continue pursuing genius.

[For more on the coming data-center war, please see Tech Titans Building Boom by Randy H. Katz in the February issue of IEEE Spectrum.]

The author is a former Dalang of Gamelan, the world's first Web site devoted to the Java programming language.

Should we be discussing Nano Ethics, Ethically Speaking?

Ethicists and other assorted philosophical types are chomping at the bit to get at the subject of nanotechnology. At first, it was because of the idea of nanobots and universal assemblers that would help us live forever and would spy on us wherever we were.

Now that this particular dystopian future seems as though it is going to be delayed beyond their attention span, they have turned to the more mundane subject of nanomaterials and how they might impact human enhancement.

While the Human Enhancement Ethics Group concedes that there are many technologies that willâ'¿errâ'¿enhance humans, they argue that nanotechnology is at the core of these technologies.

I suppose that might be true if companies trying to make commercial products with nanomaterials are successful, but frankly at the moment those are few and far between.

In one of the bios for a speaker and their introduction to their topic I felt as though they were talking directly to me.

Some writers claim that ethicists involved in assessing future technologies like nanotechnology and human enhancement devote too much time to debating issues that may or may not arise, at the expense of addressing more urgent, current issues.

Youâ''re darn tootinâ''. But then it went on and I got lost in the following idea:

This practice has been claimed to squander the scarce and valuable resource of ethical concern.

â''Scarce and valuable resource of ethical concern.â'' Really? Scarce?

Okay, maybe theyâ''re right. It seems that ethical concern was strangely absent during the deregulation of our financial industry over the past 12 years that allowed a bunch of greedy yahoos to take down the world financial system. So, yeah, I guess it is pretty scarce when â''addressing more urgent, current issues.â''


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