Tech Talk iconTech Talk

Americans Know Little about Nanotechnology and Less about Synthetic Biology

I am beginning to think that the Project on Emerging Technology gets some pleasure in demonstrating how ill informed US citizens are about subjects outside the scope of Britney Spearâ''s marital woes.

They have just released another poll, as they did last year, that indicates that Americans (North Americans, I presume) donâ''t know much about nanotechnology, and this year seem to know even less about synthetic biology.

This year the news reports didnâ''t come with penetrating, albeit condescending, insights such as people with less education were less likely to know about nanotechnology than those with advanced educations. But it did manage to come with foreboding tales as it did last year with the concept of â''backlashâ''.

This time around the scary scenario will be of the next presidential administration being called upon to make decisions about synthetic forms of life.

One of these days, when I have some extra cash, I am going to commission one of these polling companies to do a survey that lists every policy issue that will impact everyone and find out the degree to which people actually know the subject. I am betting that on everything from healthcare to taxes that fewer than 50% will have any idea about the subject.

Should we be alarmed? Definitely, yes. An uniformed electorate is the Achilles Heel of democracy. But I am not terribly worried that 90% of people in the US donâ''t know about synbio. However, it does get me a tad nervous that nearly 60% of Americans canâ''t name a single Supreme Court judge.

Mobile-phone newcomer shakes up Fiji

IMG_1896.JPG

I arrived in Fiji on Wednesday and was immediately greeted by an unexpected tech story. A taxi driver drove me from the airport to Suva, the capital, through hyper-green lushness, behind which farmland stretched out to the horizon. Tucked between the broad-leaved trees were one-story houses, some of them balanced on stilts to avoid flooding during the rainy seasons.

As we entered downtown Suva at 8 in the morning, dozens of teenagers and twenty-somethings thronged on the sidewalks, all massively perky and clad in bright red shirts. They were booster temporarily hired by Digicel, a Jamaican mobile phone company, to hype up the launch of the companyâ''s Fiji-wide GSM network that day. Dance music pounded throughout the central downtown area from the backs of Digicel pick-up trucks, a prelude to the all-day party the company was throwing for itself. Two Digicel minions jumped in front of our car at a stoplight and started wiping down the windshield.

Thousands of Fijians stood in line in front of the flagship Digicel store throughout the day. In Fiji, the incumbent carrier, Vodafone, has long had a virtual monopoly (another company also offers services, but it piggybacks off of Vodafoneâ''s network) and charged prohibitively high rates, according to a few locals I approached.

The network is touted as the first nation-wide service, with 95 percent coverage in Fiji. This may not be as paradigm-shattering as an iPhone launch, but I think itâ''s fair to argue that opening up the mobile phone market will have a profound impact on communications in Fiji, a collection of widespread islands that are challenging to connect to much of anything â'' a mobile phone network, a power grid, you name it. This is Digicelâ''s fifth launch in the region, following Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu.

Nanotech and Energy: Itâ¿¿s the Mundane thatâ¿¿s Interesting

A recent short report that comes from the German government, namely from the State of Hesse, identifies all the potential ways nanotechnology could impact energy.

The firm for which I currently work is cited often throughout the report based on our reports and white papers on nanotech and energy.

While in the past we too have listed all the potential ways nanotechnology could impact the energy sector, like the more far out possibilities of power lines incorporating carbon nanotubes to more mainstream concepts such as improved solar cells, it is really in the more mundane areas of improved efficiency that nanotech can have the biggest impact today.

Improved insulation and lighter materials for automobiles donâ''t get the headlines that 3D solar cells made out of carbon nanotubes seem to get. But these uses are being adopted today and are likely to be the growth area for nanotech applications in the energy sector well into the near future.

As you can see from the chart that is cited in the State of Hesse of report, the big market application for nanotechnology is in â''Energy Savingâ'', equaling near 5 times the size of â''Energy Storageâ'' and â''Energy Productionâ'' combined.

NanoEnergy.jpg

Source: Cientifica

While this report will satisfy those compulsive list makers out there who feel compelled to to identify every possible application for nanotech, it will also enlighten those who might have some interest in the applications that will actually make a difference.

Feathered Farmland Friends of the Fens

The wind power industry has had close to zero success designing bird and bat-safe turbines, but nascent research by ecologists nevertheless shows that wind power is compatible with local ecology. Case in point: today's report in Britain's Journal of Applied Ecology on wind farms and birds in the East Anglian fens.

Mark Whittingham and fellow ecologists from Newcastle University surveyed birds on farmland around two wind farms in the fens and recorded almost 3,000 birds from 23 different species. Among them are five endangered species: the yellowhammer, the Eurasian tree sparrow, the corn bunting, the Eurasian skylark and the common reed bunting.

Bull%20%20turbines%201%20Copyright%20Mark%20Whittingham.jpg

Whittingham and company found the wind turbines had no effect on the birds' distribution with the exception of common pheasants. â''This is the first evidence suggesting that the present and future location of large numbers of wind turbines on European farmland is unlikely to have detrimental effects on farmland birds," says Whittingham.

Plenty of questions remain. For example, a comprehensive $15 million study of Denmark's large offshore wind farms published last winter showed seabirds to be remarkably adept at avoiding offshore installations, but ecologists remain concerned that the 10,000 megawatts of offshore wind power that Germany hopes to install by 2020 could scare off populations of endangered loons along Germany's North Sea coast.

Even the Newcastle study was conducted last winter and must be followed up to confirm there are no unexpected impacts during the breeding season.

The wind industry would do well to continue working on newer, safer technology.

Meta-twitter: The Twittering of the Presidential Debate

chart.png

IMAGE CREDIT: TWITTER

Contrary to my previous assumptions, twittering is actually a useful activity. (No, not here. Also, not here.) The U.S. presidential debate last Friday was twittered by Slate and countless other online entities, large and small.

Twitter made a graph of the frequencies of certain words in outgoing 'tweets.' The most intensively tweeted words were tax, Iraq and Korean, if I understand the chart correctly. That means these particular debate moments incited the greatest volume of twittering.

I imagine the campaign directors are already poring through the twitter archives for veins to mine for talking points. Tweeting points. The voices in my head are starting to develop a speech impediment.

(via Boingboing, where the comments will make you laugh)

Xohm: A Tale of Three Cities

Yesterday, Sprint announced the official debut of its first WiMax city, Baltimore, five months and one city behind schedule. Frankly, thatâ''s not a bad show of it. In some respects, the service lives up to Sprintâ''s promises, andâ''in part because of the delayâ''in some ways, exceeds it. And in other ways it falls short.

Iâ''ll get a better sense of whether Xohm is living up to its promise on 10 October; Sprint is having an invitation-only press event in Baltimore that day. My main question will be about the network coverage. Xohm bills itself as a mobile broadband service, with the speed of DSL, and the mobility of your cellphone. But a spot-check of Xohmâ''s coverage map suggests that there are large dead zones, far larger than you would tolerate from your cellphone service provider.

I entered three addresses into the coverage tracker page found here. The first is the home address of a friend who lives in the Fells Point area, down near the Inner Harbor. She would apparently get good coverage in her home and anywhere near her apartment. Sheâ''s an IT manager at the Baltimore Sun, and would, according to the coverage tracker, have terrific coverage in and around her office.

xohm-balt-0a.jpg

I then entered another address I found on Yahooâ''s people search pageâ''a random person with the same first and last names as my friend. This Baltimore resident doesnâ''t have the same good luck. While she would also apparently have coverage in her home, about half her immediate area does not.

xohm-balt-1a.jpg

Sprintâ''s coverage is, of course, also missing two cities. As we reported back in January (â''Sprint's Broadband Gambleâ''), the original roadmap for Xohm called for rolling out service to two metro areasâ''Chicago, and Baltimore-Washington, D.C.â''over the course of the first part of 2008, with a soft launch in January and a hard launch in April. This initial rollout is just Baltimore, with Chicago and the D.C. areas relegated to â''Coming Soonâ'' status.

Unfortunately, the delay doesnâ''t seem to have helped Sprint put together a very wide range of devices with which to connect to the nascent network. Looking at the Xohm product page, A ZyXEL-based modem seems to be the only way to get online with a non-Windows-based computer. Youâ''d be tethered to the modem via Ethernet, which, for us laptop users, constitutes mobility only in some highly ironic sense. Thereâ''s no sign of the Motorola modem that I saw demonstrated almost exactly a year ago.

Thereâ''s only one device that gives a laptop connectivity in a truly mobile sense, a Samsung PCMCIA card, and a USB thumb drive, and it only works on Windows-based computers. One nice feature, though, is that according to the spec pages, the â''XOHM Connection Manager automatically switches to the best available network - WiMAX, Wi-Fi and LAN.â'' A USB thumb drive made by ZTE is, like Chicago and D.C., listed as â''Coming Soon.â''

Another Coming Soon device, and maybe the most interesting item on the product page, is a WiMax-enhanced version of Nokiaâ''s N810 tablet. It looks pretty sweet, with enough features and maybe even enough keyboard and screen real estate to get real work done. Itâ''s hard to tell reading through the specs and then Nokiaâ''s own PR-laden product pages, but the initial version will run Nokiaâ''s OS2008, while a later edition might run Googleâ''s Android. Nokia is one of Xohmâ''s four core partners. The others are Intel, Motorola, and Samsung.

Speaking of Google, monthly Xohm accounts include â''One XOHM Mail, Calendar, and Chat account powered by Google.â'' Those are all part of your iGoogle page, if you have one, but perhaps a new iGoogle account is created when you sign up for Xohm. Iâ''ll be asking more about that on 10 October.

Out of Africa: liberation through the skies

Last Thursday morning, I flew from Tamale to Accra, Ghana on a 45-seat prop plane. The flight took barely more than an hour, and spared me a ten-hour car ride. Tamale is the most important city in Ghanaâ''s largely-Muslim north, and the air service is relatively new. Antrak flies daily; it is one of two commercial carriers.

The opening of Ghanaâ''s north through the skies does not resolve the continuing troubles with basic roads between Accra and points north. The very same awful road that links Accra to Kumasi continues further north to Tamale. If Tamale is to become the breadbasket for more-urbanized southern Ghana, the road to Kumasi must be greatly improved. But air service provides an important boost â'' and not only for people. Fresh mangoes are making the plane trip from Tamale to Accra as well.

Some of the mangoes get eaten by prosperous urban elites, while the remainder move onto another airplane â'' this one traveling to Europe.

Air service from Accra to Tamale remains an experiment. All seats were filled when I flew on Monday to Tamale. Only one seat was empty on my return trip. At 175 dollars per flight (or $350 roundtrip), air travel to Tamale is well beyond the means of ordinary Ghanaians. Yet while the service needs elite customers to survive and thrive.

There are wider lessons here for aviation technology and African development. These are early days but over time, regional air travel could solve one of Africaâ''s most vexing problems: how to move people and goods, quickly and economically, over vast distances.

Skeptics abound, citing relatively low demand -- and low purchasing power -- from African consumers. I have written elsewhere about the potential of aviation to liberate African travelers, drawing parallels with the mobile-phone revolution in the region.

"Just as the mobile phone bypassed the vastly expensive challenge of upgrading dysfunctional African land-line systems," I wrote in the January issue of The Wilson Quarterly, "a big push into rural-based aviation, aimed at moving crops from the bush to African cities and beyond, would leapfrog the problem of bad roads."

One commentator called my suggestion "certifiably insane," which may mean that aviation holds more promise than many presume.

Hubble Telescope Failure Causes NASA to Scramble

The magnificent Hubble Space Telescope has suddenly gone blind. NASA said today that the far-seeing orbiting telescope stopped transmitting data late Saturday, caused by the failure of a key communications component. The malfunction has caused the space agency to postpone the next mission of its space shuttle fleet, which ironically was supposed to have performed a series of long awaited repairs to the Hubble.

The Atlantis orbiter was ready to go for a service mission to the Hubble on 14 October. That mission, designated STS-125, will now be pushed back until February at the earliest. The extra time should give the STS-125 crew an opportunity to become familiar with the most recent piece of equipment to act up on the 18-year-old telescope. It is known as the Control Unit/Science Data Formatter and handles the storage and transmission of science data to Earth.

In a press release, NASA described the malfunction as follows: "Shortly after 8 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 27, the telescope's spacecraft computer issued commands to safe the payload computer and science instruments when errors were detected within the Science Data Formatter. An attempt to reset the formatter and obtain a dump of the payload computerâ''s memory was unsuccessful."

The unit's outage has effectively rendered the telescope useless until NASA engineers can effect a complex workaround using a backup data transmission channel for the science instruments onboard.

The STS-125 crew has already been in training for two years to fix a number of other glitches that have been acting up on the Hubble in recent years.

"The teams are always looking at contingencies, and this is just something that has cropped up we have the ability to deal with," said NASA spokesperson Michael Curie. "They're just trying to decide what direction we want to go."

Physicists Talk Tough on Efficiency and The War

I recall well a meeting of journalists at the Kennedy School of Government in 2003 where I was regarded as a wingnut + conspiracy theorist for seeing a linkage between U.S. intransigence on greenhouse gas controls and the War in Iraq. Never have I felt as alienated as an American intellectual. These days I reflect instead on how far the national conversation has come in the years since. I happened upon the latest sign of hope quite unexpectedly in a report on energy efficiency issued earlier this month by the American Physical Society: "Energy = Future. Think efficiency."

I'd been feeling guilty about letting the APS report pass by without a mention. Energy efficiency is a tough story for journalists -- making do with less energy simply lacks the sex appeal of faster cars or new power generating technologies such as high-tech techniques for pollution-free coal power or the latest in photovoltaics. And yet, as the APS rightly points out, the U.S. is in a better position than most countries to meet its need for clean, domestic energy by squeezing a bigger bang out of every joule of energy consumed.

What will be useful about the APS report is its explicit connection between the technologies available to boost efficiency in the key sectors of transportation and buildings, and the shortcomings in science & technology policy that thwart their ready adoption or rapid adoption.

But what I really appreciated was the no-nonsense manner in which the analysis unfolds. The relatively frank prose of the executive summary (considering the genre) sets the stage for what follows:

"Nowhere is the standard of living more rooted in energy than in the United States, and, with its defense forces deployed in the most distant regions around the world, nowhere is the security of a nation more dependent on energy...Yet only in times of extreme turbulence â'' the OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil embargo in 1973, the overthrow of the shah of Iran in 1979 and the Persian Gulf War in 1991 â'' when public frustration became politically intolerable did American officials devote serious attention to energy policy. Although some of the policy initiatives yielded significant benefits, others were left on the drafting board as the nation reverted to a business-as-usual energy routine once the turbulence passed and public dissatisfaction dissipated."

How refreshing. Now, let's get to work.

Open Source for Nanotech Labs: Will it make a difference for innovation?

In the spirit of scientific cooperation and goodwill, MIT researcher, Stephen Steiner, has decided to make available for download via a website programs he is developing for further automating the lab processes used for making nanomaterials.

The first up is a program he is calling â''Ansariâ'' after Anousheh Ansari, who was intent on making space exploration more accessible for all. The program essentially automates a furnace for â''cooking upâ'' carbon nanotubes.

This may save some tired research assistants from staring at a furnace while waiting to turn the dial to 1000 degrees Celsius. But itâ''s not clear that this will actually speed up the â''innovation processâ'' as Steiner seems to ultimately hope.

When one considers that maybe 80 to 90% of the academic research that this automation will speed up will never yield any kind of economic value, it really comes down to how you define â''innovationâ''.

I think many would consider the discovery and later the exploitation in a little over a decade of the giant magneto resistance (GMR) phenomenon has led to innovation. But the discovery of carbon nanotubes, which can be dated back to the mid-70s or early 90s depending on who you ask, has yielded little commercial impact to date except for some filler in composites for sporting equipment. These two examples demonstrate how difficult it is to determine exactly what innovation may constitute.

In the world of nanotech, the science seems to be rolling along quite nicely with research turning up new possibilities seemingly daily. The problems seems to be the disconnect between the labs and the markets.

What might be in order is Open Source for managing the business based on an emerging technology.

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