Tech Talk iconTech Talk

The Business of Nanotechnology and Solar Energy...Such as it is

Last week Nanosys offered up an odd press release to announce its forming of a new wholly owned subsidiary called QD Soleil that would focus the companies nanotechnologies in the area of solar panel cell design.

For those of you not familiar with the brief history of Nanosys they are known primarily for their â''seminal estateâ'' of intellectual property that includes over 500 patents. And likely to a lesser extent for their failed attempt to get a $100 million IPO on the back of $4 million in revenues a few years back.

This distinctly biotech strategy of building a business model on staking claim to as much IP as you can possibly can I have commented on before. But aside from this phenomenon there were a couple of other bits to this press release that really struck me and are initially indicated by the use of the word â''designâ'' in the first sentence.

It seems that the new company is not really going to produce solar cells based on Nanosysâ'' nanotechnologies but offer up its â''portfolioâ'' for licensing to larger companies to exploit in solar cells.

But the press release really migrates into strange territory when Josh Wolfe, co-founder and Managing Partner of Lux Capital, points out "The acquisition of QD Soleil would be an ingenious way, especially in this environment, to take a focused approached to innovation and R&D."

This marks a first for me where a company puts out a press release on the creation of a new subsidiary only to come out and say explicitly in the release that it would make a good acquisition target. Okay, I have seen this kind of maneuver before but only implicitly, not using a financial pundit as a mouthpiece for your real aims.

I guess we have just taken another step further into seeing how a company without much in the way of products and just IP generates revenues.

IEEE 125th Anniversary: How It All Got Started (Part 2)

As mentioned yesterday, the IEEE is celebrating its 125th anniversary. The modern institute is a descendant of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, founded in 1884. So let's take a look at how it all began.

The idea for such an enterprise was proposed in the spring of 1884 by N. S. Keith, of Philadelphia, an inventor and electrometallurgical engineer. Aware of the impending International Electrical Exhibition in Philadelphia in the fall, Keith reasoned that professionals working in the electrical field should organize in time to officially welcome visitors from other nations on behalf of the United States. So he mailed a notice to others who shared an interest in electrical inventions.

This first call for participation read in part:

"The rapidly growing art of producing and utilizing electricity has no assistance from any American national scientific society. There is no legitimate excuse for this implied absence of scientific interest, except that it be the short-sighted plea that everyone is too busy to give time to scientific, practical and social intercourse which, in other professions, have been found so conducive to advancement."

It continued by stating that such an organization should be open to "electrical engineers, electricians, instructors in electricity in schools and colleges, inventors and manufacturers of electrical apparatus, officers of telegraph, telephone, electric light, burglar alarm, district messenger, electric time, and of all companies based upon electrical inventions."

To form such a group, Keith organized a formal meeting on 13 May 1884 at the offices of the American Society of Civil Engineers at 127 East 23rd Street in New York City. The attendees drew up a charter and named themselves the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. They then elected a slate of officers, headed by Norvin Green, who was the president of the Western Union Telegraph Co. Supporting him were six distinguished vice presidents: Alexander Graham Bell, of Washington, D.C.; Charles A. Cross, of Boston; Thomas A. Edison, of New York City; George A. Hamilton, of New York City; Charles H. Haskins, of Milwaukee; and Frank L. Pope, of Elizabeth, N.J. Other institute officers elected that day included industry leaders such as: Charles Brush, of Cleveland; Elisha Gray, of Chicago; Edwin J. Houston, of Philadelphia; and Theodore N. Vail, of Boston.

These first managers of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers were giants in the new field of electrical machinery, representing almost every aspect of its success to that time. Some had already founded major corporations that exist, in one form or another, to this time, such as AT&T and General Electric. The officers were so top-heavy with men (yes, only men) who had invented themselves into prominence that the leading trade publication of the era, Electrical World, described the new institute simply as a "group of electricians and capitalists."

Still, they charted a course for electrical engineering in America that has grown with the country as much as it has helped the country to grow -- and extended that success to the world.

For that, we thank them for their foresight.

[Material for this column provided by Engineers and Electrons by John D. Ryder and Donald G. Fink, IEEE Press, New York, 1984.]

IEEE 125th Anniversary: How It All Got Started (Part 1)

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) turned 125 today. Technically speaking, the IEEE arose from a merger of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) and the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE) in 1963. Still, the older and bigger parent, the AIEE, held its first meeting on 13 May 1884 in New York City to become a professional society for electrical engineers, which were quickly growing in numbers in the wake of remarkable breakthroughs in technology in the late Nineteenth Century.

To commemorate the occasion, the IEEE is carrying out a series of activities to promote the profession of engineering and reach out to the public around the world to encourage greater understanding of the work the institute carries out (for more information, please visit Celebrate IEEE's 125th Anniversary). To that end, the institute has announced that this is Global Engineering the Future Day, an opportunity to increase awareness of technological advancement, especially among students, who represent the future and will be the people that make the technological breakthroughs of the Twenty-first Century.

In today's Spectrum Online, Editor-in-Chief Susan Hassler has written a column, Engineering the Future at IEEE, in which she looks forward to the next 125 years and the amazing developments that lie in store for the young. "You will learn, if you havenâ''t already, that a universe of opportunities to invent new technologies and make a difference in the world remain wide open to the curious and adventurous willing to take chances and follow their dreams," Hassler counseled students.

Still, the past is prolog to any remarkable achievement, especially to one that has gone on for more than a century. So it bears remembering that this institute started from humble beginnings and originated with a passion for education and professionalism among only a handful of individuals. To review that origin, we'll take a look back at the founding of the organization tomorrow in this space.

It's a truly fascinating story.

[Please also see IEEE Celebrates 125 Years of Engineering the Future in today's Tech Talk section by Spectrum Online's manager, Senior Editor Harry Goldstein, for more on Engineering the Future Day.]

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition Wants You to Make a Video about Electronic Waste

17175.jpgToday I herded the obsolete or dead electronics in my officeâ''an ancient external hard drive that connects to no inputs on my current computer, an LCD monitor that has become excruciatingly hard to read, bunches of old power supplies and dead rechargeable batteries, a tangle of redundant cables, and that box of empty printer cartridges Iâ''ve been meaning to drop off somewhereâ''into a pile of electronic waste. This wasnâ''t random busywork; on Monday our neighborhood is getting a free e-waste pickup from One World Recycling. Last time I tackled the electronic waste that accumulates in my house (an obsolete iMac, a few dead VCRs), I had to take them to Green Citizen and pay a recycling fee for the non-display hardware, so I donâ''t want to miss this opportunity.

This pile of e-waste offers another opportunity, if I can just figure out how to turn next weekâ''s recycling day into a catchy 90-second movie, because the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition is offering cash for the best videos about the e-waste problem and responsible recycling.

So far, I donâ''t have any brilliant ideas. But if you do, here are the contest details:

Videos can be no longer than 90 seconds and must show the human and environmental impacts of e-waste, the toxic chemicals found in e-waste, and what it means to recycle responsibly, and encourage others to communicate about the e-waste problem and the use of responsible recyclers.

You submit your video on YouTube, and fill out a separate entry form. Information on both is on the SVTC web site. The deadline is June 12, the current date of the analog television shutdown, which may create a wave of electronic waste. First prize is $500.

IEEE Celebrates 125 Years of Engineering the Future

Happy Birthday, IEEE!

IEEE, the world's largest technical professional society, is commemorating its 125th anniversary today with a variety of activities including the first IEEE Engineering the Future Day. Follow all events on the IEEE 125th Anniversary Web site.

Engineering the Future Day, which takes place on IEEEâ''s â''officialâ'' anniversary date, recognizes the contributions and impact that IEEE, its members and engineering and technology professionals have made for the benefit of humanity.

Designed to raise public awareness of the diverse opportunities in different technology fields, Engineering the Future Day is part of a series of celebrations in major world cities throughout the year in an effort to increase awareness of technology advancements around the world. IEEE groups from Belgium to India, to Australia and Panama and around the U.S. have local celebrations planned for today, and additional celebrations are planned for throughout the year.

Today also kicks off two competitions that were launched in conjunction with IEEEâ''s 125th Anniversary:

IEEE Presidentsâ'' Change the World Competition â'' Beginning on today IEEE members and the public may cast their vote for the peopleâ''s choice award in the Presidentsâ'' competition from among the 15 finalists posted on the Web site. The competition, which invites students or teams of students to identify a real-world problem and apply engineering, science, computing and leadership skills to solve it, closed 28 February. Prizes will be awarded to the finalists in June.

IEEE Engineering Your World Competition â'' Kicking off on Engineering the Future Day, this contest, open to everyone, invites individuals to submit videos of how they use science, engineering or technology to make their living spaces (i.e. â'' dorm, apartment, car, work area, etc.) more livable, fun and convenient. A panel of judges will select the top five entries which will compete in online voting competitions. Details will be posted today on the IEEE 125th Anniversary Web site.

Checking in on Dream Jobber David Downey at the 2009 Kansas City Corporate Challenge

djobdav01.jpgRemember David Downey, featured in IEEE Spectrumâ''s February 2008 Dream Jobs Special Report? Downey, an EE working on fitness equipment for Garmin International in Kansas City, KS, also organizes that companyâ''s team for the annual Kansas City Corporate Challenge going on right now (and in its thirtieth year). Entrants compete in a vast variety of sportsâ''those you might expect, like basketball, soccer, football, swimming, and trackâ''as well as those you might not expect, like darts, bowling, fishing, and tug-of-war.

Downey reports that the Garmin team is doing well this year, in second place in its division at the end of the first full week of competition. He personally is competing in the bike race and the triathalon; the triathalon fitting neatly in with the final testing of his latest product for Garmin, the Forerunner 310XT, a GPS watch designed for triathletes, designed to track distance, pace, and heart rate, in and out of the water; it also tracks the transition time between events. It will go on the market 8 June.

Nanotechnology Detractors Grumble over Lack of Public Concern

Sometimes it can be just so frustrating when trying to stir up public hysteria and all you get is a shoulder shrug. So goes the lament in this article, entitled â''Fearing the Invisibleâ''Selling Nanotechnology Hazardsâ'' at the Safety at Work blog.

It seems like all the effort to link nanotechnology to asbestos has just not got the public demanding a total moratorium on nanotechnology as some NGOs have proposed.

This lack of response could be that the main evidence that finds a similarity in the behavior between asbestos and some nanoparticles (namely, multi-walled nanotubes (MWNTs)) rests upon research of Ken Donaldson at Edinburg University, which did not really address the issues of dose and exposure.

No, the author of the article is probably right, it has little to do with the science, but rather how effective the sell has been on the connection. At least one of the problems, according to the author, is that itâ''s hard to get people afraid of the invisible. Not sure I am buying that one since the unknown of anything thatâ''s invisible (say, for example, the swine flu virus) does a pretty good job of freaking people out beyond all reason.

The article comes a little closer to the mark when it points out that unlike asbestos, which had visible products such as roofing or insulation materials, nanotechnology may be contained in products but people canâ''t â''seeâ'' the nanotechnology.

Thatâ''s not quite right either, Iâ''m afraid.

I think one possibility not discussed in the article for the causes of the â''Who cares?â'' attitude could be that the idea of over 500 consumer products that use nanomaterials just doesnâ''t stir up a lot of public concern.

Another possibility may be that while ignorance can be fantastic accelerant for fueling public hysteria, it seems in the case of nanotechnology to be mated to such complete apathy to try and learn anything about the subject that it never seems to ignite.

Or a third option might be that the prospects of better treatments to disease like cancer, or improving alternative energy sources like photovoltaics may be a bit of better tradeoff than better pipe insulation and roofing shingles we got from asbestos.

You know, the public may be on to something.

Space Shuttle Heads for Orbiting Telescope One Last Time

The shuttle Atlantis blasted off today on the final scheduled mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

The US $900 million mission, designated STS-125, will rendezvous with the orbiting observatory Wednesday and begin performing a series of procedures in space intended to upgrade the Hubble with sophisticated new equipment that should extend its functionality for years.

During the 11-day trip, astronauts from Atlantis are tasked with installing two new instruments, repairing two inactive ones, and swapping out a number of key components. The crew will perform five spacewalks over five days to complete the servicing operations, one of which will involve installing a replacement for the Hubble's faulty Science Instrument Command and Data Handling Unit, which failed in September 2008, temporarily blinding the telescope (please see Hubble Telescope Failure Causes NASA to Scramble). That equipment failure delayed the current mission for seven months, as NASA labored to construct a replacement.

The crew of STS-125 consists of its commander, Scott Altman, pilot Gregory C. Johnson (Capt., USN Ret.), and mission specialists John Grunsfeld, Mike Massimino, Andrew Feustel, Michael Good, and Megan McArthur.

"The teams here at [Kennedy Space Center] gave us a great vehicle, and ascent was good," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, after the launch. "It was a great start to a very challenging mission."

In a widely publicized move, NASA has taken the unique precaution of preparing another shuttle launch vehicle, for the Endeavour, to sit on a pad at Cape Canaveral and place a four-member crew on standby, just in case a major malfunction should occur during the Atlantis mission. Previous planned missions in years past were canceled for safety concerns. The Hubble travels in an orbit that is much further from the earth than the International Space Station and inhabited by much more debris, or "space junk," raising the level of concern at NASA.

Here's to hoping that the space agency does not have to resort to such a drastic emergency measure.

Life After DARPA

Tony.JPG

After the end of his 8-year tenure as director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in February, Tony Tether signed on today to become a member of the board of Massachusetts-based Qteros. Qteros as far as I can tell from the dense thicket of jargon in the press release is a technology transition biofuels company.*

What Tony Tether will bring to the company will be experience with transitioning new technologies--the one-off DARPA research results (for example Dean Kamenâ''s Luke Arm prototype) and making such products commercially producible and reproducible.

Qteros makes cellulosic ethanol. The original research came out of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Heavy hitters like BP and Valero have contributed investment dollars since.

Qteros, formerly known as SunEthanol, has developed a proprietary, game-changing technology known as "C3" (Complete Cellulosic Conversion), using the Q Microbe. First discovered in Western Massachusetts by Qteros Founder and Chief Scientist Dr. Susan Leschine, the Q Microbe has the unique ability to transform virtually any cellulosic material into ethanol.

As Spectrum editor Bill Sweet explained back in December, cellulosic alcohol has given the new Democratic leadership a graceful retreat from a reckless prior love affair with corn ethanol.

*corrected 5/13/2009

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement
Load More