Tech Talk iconTech Talk

More Divestiture for Nanotech Companies

UK-based Oxonica announced last week what is effectively the sale of Nanoplex to US-based Becton, Dickinson & Co. (BD) for what could total up to US$7 million.

BD had been the primary client of Nanoplex technology prior to purchasing the technology outright from Oxonica.

Oxonica completed the purchase of Nanoplex at the beginning of 2006 for the issue of up to 7,538,440 fully paid ordinary shares in Oxonica. Some have valued the deal at Oxonica paying around US$21 million to acquire Nanoplex.

Yikes! Buying it for $21 million and then selling it for $7 millionâ'¿that doesnâ''t sound good.

According to the Richard Farleigh, Chairman of Oxonica (and famous for some British TV show called the â''Dragonâ''s Denâ''), the strategic deal with BD for the Nanoplex technology is part of plan for â''eliminating non-essential expenses and investing in developing the security and energy businesses.â''

Well, at least for the security part of the business that will entail licensing the Nanoplex technology back from BD. As for the energy business, thatâ''s a hard one to figure out after the legal case on the IP for the underlying technology didnâ''t go the way Oxonica would have hoped.

This news follows Nanoteroâ''s sale of its government business to Lockheed Martin also to improve the strategic focus of the company.

The realignment of a companyâ''s strategic focus can always be a tricky maneuver, especially for small nanotech companies that have managed to try to compete in sometimes half a dozen different market sectors at the same time.

End of world delayed 6 weeks

The Large Hadron Collider had barely started up when it had to be shut down yesterday, the New York Times reports.

After the machine was successfully fired up on Sept. 10, CERN researchers were optimistic about starting actual collisions by mid-October.

Several mishaps, including the failure of a 30-ton electrical transformer, have slowed progress since then. In the worst case, on Friday, one of the giant superconducting magnets that guide the protons failed during a test. A large amount of helium, which is used to cool the magnets to within 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit of absolute zero, leaked into the collider tunnel.

In a terse statement, the laboratory said that an electrical connection between the magnets had melted because of the high current. To fix it, engineers will have to warm that section of the tunnel, and then cool it all the way down again.

If you can't get the thing started, how can you end the world?

Out of Africa: Giant air conditioners

For the first time in five year I'm back in Accra, Ghana, the pearl of Angolophone West Africa. The biggest change I see in Ghana's capital city is the proliferation of giant, seven-foot tall air conditioners.

That's right. Accra is the new Houston. Parts of the U.S. -- Vegas, Phoenix, Sacramento -- were only fully domesticated with the advent of relatively effective and efficient air conditioning. Yet the cooling technology that ignited the boom in the Sun Belt came during a long economic expansion in what once was the world's richest country. The arrival of super-duper air conditioners in Accra illustrates widening inequality in a relatively poor African country that is also home to a thin elite that wants creature comforts.

To be sure, Accra is hot, but the giant air conditioners are designed to do more than offer respite from tropical temperatures. The other night I ate dinner in Papaye, a marvelous local chicken-and-rice restaurant in the city's fashionable Osu district. Papaye has a posh clientele; main courses costs upwards of seven U.S. dollars. Five years ago, the restaurant relied on fans and small air conditioners. Now four large wall-size units blast out cool air, so aggressively that napkins blow off tables and hair styles wave in the wind.

The idea isn't to keep people cool but rather to send a message of opulence. These elite diners can afford irrationally powerful air conditioning.

Mega-AC may be limited to the top tier of Accra society, yet these are the very people who lead. By consuming so much electricity in pursuit of status cool, these new African rich are making harder the task of promoting energy efficiency in their countries. And Ghana, as well as most other African countries, face serious shortages of electricity.

There may be other subtle damage from super-cool AC. On Thursday, the day before I visited Papaye, I gave a lecture at the University of Ghana. As students and faculty filed into a long rectangular room, someone switched on the air conditioners. I suddenly felt a cold blast of air. Or rather two of them.

I was, I realized, caught between the crossfire of dueling air conditioners. Freezing,

Before I began my lecture, I asked that the AC go off.

People murmured and squirmed in their seats. There was silence. Then a single intrepid student rose and objected. He wanted to the AC to stay on.

I over-ruled him, the privilege of the visitor lecturer, I insisted.

When he complained again, I made my final comment on the matter. â''You will listen more carefully to me if you are hot and sweaty,â'' I said. â''Suffering concentrates the mind.â''

The room erupted in laughter â'' nervous laughter.

Thereâ''s a listen here about how social reality and human invention co-exist, and not always easily.

Bluetooth Headsets: Noises Off

Last night, I attended the Digital Experience Holiday Spectacular in New York City, a consumer electronics media event where the whoâ''s who and â''Whoâ''s that?â'' gather to gain buzz for their latest and greatest. As I passed by the tables looking for something that wasnâ''t just an incremental improvement over last year or something slapped together as a placeholder between now and the Consumer Electronics Show in January, one interesting trend slowly became apparent.

Bluetooth wireless earpiece makers have finally gotten the message: if they want to make a mint selling these handsfree devices the way cellular handset makers have raked in cash selling phones, they had better do something about these gadgetsâ'' pitiful sound quality. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to reveal that a Bluetooth headset was my most prized gift last Christmas. But it is now interred in my personal consumer electronics mausoleum (read: sock drawer) along with a couple of old cellphones, a Handspring Visor, and some digital watches whose batteries I never bothered to replace.

Why did I retire it so soon? Because its single most outstanding trait was its ability to heighten the frustration that comes along with the conveniences of wireless telephony. Iâ''ll give you an example. In New York State, where I live, drivers are required to use handsfree devices. But Iâ''ve got twin two-year-old boys, and the phrase, â''Shhhh, daddyâ''s trying to talk on the phone,â'' holds as much meaning for them as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. And in that enclosed space, trying to have a conversation was very often an exercise in comic futility. All I got for my trouble was reduced time between charges on my handset, because maintaining the connection to the earpiece drew precious energy from its tiny battery.

But now, just in time for the upcoming holiday season, come a bunch of new â''Bluetoothsâ'' that might sound as good as AT&Tâ''s plain old telephone service circa 1960. Motorola showed a tiny earpiece that its PR rep says will allow you to talk to someone from, say, the floor of an industry tradeshow and convince them that youâ''re in the stacks at your local library. Plantronics was hawking earpieces featuring a technology it calls AudioIQ thatâ''s supposed to suppress nearly all background noise. One of the high end models has two microphonesâ''one to pick up the speakerâ''s voice, and the other to take in, digitize, then eliminate the surrounding cacophony. A small company called Jawbone showcased an elegant device that has taken a contract out on noise with a technology called Noise Assassin.

I have no idea how well these products do what they purport to do. But the reps all promise to put me in touch with product managers and engineers who can explain what makes AudioIQ so smart and what weapons the Noise Assassin has at its disposal. Iâ''ll report back. And who knows? I might be convinced to give these Bluetooth gizmos another shot.

Buffett Bolsters Nuclear Portfolio Edging Out France

The Oracle of Omaha has agreed in principle of pay $4.7 for Constellation Energy, whose five reactors produce three fifths of the electricity it generates in the United States. On the eve of the agreement, Electricité de France had been hoping to take a stake in Constellation and use it as a bridgehead into a revived U.S. nuclear energy market. Still hanging fire are EDFâ''s efforts to purchase British Energy, which owns and operates the UKâ''s nuclear reactor fleet.

EDF already is a significant exporter of nuclear electricity to the United Kingdom, but the British are having some trouble digesting the prospect of their nuclear reactor complementâ''which the government wants to sharply expand to produce carbon-free energyâ''being owned by France. But what do they have to complain about really? Itâ''s a logical result of introducing competition in electricity, a global movement that they largely inspired.

I live in Brooklyn, New York, and the natural gas that heats my home is delivered by Britainâ''s National Gridâ''thatâ''s right, the company that was set up to own and operate the countryâ''s electric power system, when the UK restructured the system and separated generation from transmission.

Three-Dimensional Solar Cells Made Out of Carbon Nanotubes

Headlines in both the mainstream and technology media have been buzzing with reports of a 12-year-oldâ''s science project that describes a 3D solar cell made from carbon nanotubes that can absorb both visible and UV light.

Headlines like â''A 12-Year-Old's Solar Cell May Revolutionize the Energy Industryâ'' litter the press, but despite reading a number of the stories I canâ''t ascertain if the wunderkind, who goes by the name of William Yuan, has actually created some kind of prototype or merely describes the technology.

Advice is coming thick and fast to patent the technology and start licensing.

Now I donâ''t want rain on anyoneâ''s parade, especially a 12-year-oldâ''s, but there is something eerily similar to this technology and a 3D solar cell made out of nanotubes by Georgia Tech researchers.

Odd that this GTRI announcement didnâ''t garner the same â''revolutionize the energy industryâ'' headlines. I guess the researchers were just 20 years too old to make it news.

Oscar Pistorius Sweeps Sprint Events at Paralympics

He was once barred from competing in the recent Summer Olympics because international athletics officials deemed his high-tech prosthetic legs gave him an unfair advantage against able-bodied runners.

Oscar Pistorius took the gold today in the 400 meters at the Paralympics in the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing, wrapping up a triple event sweep of the short distances in the worldwide track meet for persons with disabilities. According to an account from the Associated Press, Pistorius finished first in the 400 with a time of 47.49 seconds, a world record for his disability class.

The win matched similar performances in the 100- and 200-meter events, giving the South African double-amputee three gold medals in Beijing to go along with a gold he earned in the 200 at the Athens Paralympics in 2004.

Dubbed "The Blade Runner" by the media, Pistorius was born without fibulas in his lower legs and had both limbs amputated in early childhood. As a young man, he took an interest in soccer after being fitted with prostheses. This led to a passion for running and an historic collaboration with one of the world's top prosthetic design firms, Ossur of Reykjavik, Iceland, which built customized carbon-fiber prosthetic legs for him.

The early chapters of the Pistorius story have been chronicled here at IEEE Spectrum over the last three years. European journalist Marlowe Hood introduced us to the "fastest man on no legs" in November 2005 in an online feature called Born to Run. From time to time since then, we've updated the progress of Pistorius in his quest to graduate from a competitor in the Paralympics to one in the Olympics and other world-class track meets open to all comers.

(For example, see our blog entries Officials Question Amputee Sprinter's Tech Legs and Double Amputee Oscar Pistorius Can Try for Olympics on the controversy over Pistorius's carbon-fiber racing prostheses.)

Although Pistorius was eventually cleared to compete for a spot on the South African team at the Beijing Games, he faced a challenge of meeting a minimum qualification time of 45.55 seconds in the 400. He could only muster a competitive 46.25 run against able-bodied runners from his country. That left the Paralympics as his only recourse this year.

Still, Pistorius has his sites already set on the next Olympics to be held in London in 2012, as well as upcoming international meets. For that, he will have to build on the momentum he's achieved up till now to become even faster, a challenge that he said today will require "a lot of work."

"I have five or six able-bodied meets in Europe next year and those are all stepping stones to get to the bigger meets," Pistorius noted. "I'm looking forward to next year's calendar and [the] next four years."

We're looking forward to seeing how he overcomes the latest hurdles in a race to achieve his dream.

Out of Africa: Fish versus fishing

I spent last Sunday morning on the beach in West Africa. To be precise, I spent last Sunday morning observing Fante fishermen, bringing in their catch in the shadows of Cape Coast Castle, an old slaving fort that stands as a bleak reminder of human cruelty.

The Fante men fish four or five men to a wooden boat. The boat is essentially carved out of a long long. For nets, the men use manufactured nylon things, and most days, either before or after going to sea, men repair the nets themselves, stitching holes with their own hands.

The outboard motor is another technology that, along with nets, revolutionized West African fishing some 50 years ago. These motors are considered so important that government continues to sell them to fishermen at subsidizes prices.

Little has changed lately, however, so the fishermen of Fanteland face a crisis. High birth-rates have transformed the demographics of the Atlantic coast of Ghana (and elsewhere in Africa). Youth flood the beach, helping to pull to the shore the heavy wooden boats and then sort the dayâ''s catch, which is quickly transferred to women fish mongers seated in front of plastic bowls set on the sand.

The younger men dream of running their own boats, but older men occupy the positions on board and launching new fishing boats is costly. A single hand-made boat, without an outboard motor, can cost nearly $1,000.

The Internet is a distant echo for the fishermen of Cape Coast. Neither does the mobile phone â'' now owned by one in five Africans, according to the World Bank â'' shape their working lives. The sea remains dangerous. Every year some number of Fante are lost in the choppy waters. The fish catch, meanwhile, grows smaller, at least on a per fisherman basis. Less fish per fishermen means less money.

Nevertheless, fishing remains economically important in Ghana.

Fish farming ought to ease the burdens of the Fante fishermen but to fish farm they would have to move inland and they do not wish to do so. They are married to life on the coast. And Africaâ''s small but growing number of fish farmers face their own constraints, notably the cost of feed for farm-raised fish.

In the abstract, fish farming seems like a panacea, but the cost of feed has risen alongside the cost of food for humans. The same corn that people eat, fish eat too. So fish farmers in Ghana find themselves competing for resources with human consumers.

Ultimately, the solution for both ocean fishermen and aqua-farmers turns on technological change â'' and the openness of tradition-people to adopt not only new tools but also new ways of life.

Ex-Intel Engineer Caught Stealing Chip Recipes

Businesses struggle mightily to keep their secrets. They spend billions on firewalls and encryption schemes meant to keep out the wolves at the door. But there is still little that can be done when the perpetrators are trusted parties. Intel got a first-hand reminder of that cold reality in June, when it was discovered that Biswamohan Pani, a design engineer at the companyâ''s Hudson, Mass., R&D facility, pilfered the recipes for some of the chipmakerâ''s soon-to-be-released offerings.

Sure, Pani helped develop the recipes for chips such as Intelâ''s Itanium, perhaps adding morsels that made them more appealing to the companyâ''s legions of customers. But Intel owns the rights. And the way he carried out the caper suggests that he knew his actions would leave a bad taste in his employerâ''s mouth and possibly land him in hot water.

Pani turned in his Intel apron at the end of May. But by that time, he had already been hired by Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices to cook up some competitive designs at one of its R&D kitchens. Shortly after he reported for duty at AMD on 2 June, he apparently remembered that:

1) he was, technically, still a full-fledged Intel employee, with all the rights and privileges thereof;

2) one of those privileges was access to an encrypted database containing a cache of what are essentially top-secret recipe cards for Intelâ''s chips, plus drawings meant to ensure that the finished products are not half-baked.

The FBI alleges that Pani helped himself to 100 pages of these recipes and 18 drawings. His supposed intent: to blend these trade secrets into the mix at AMD, thus sweetening its batters and becoming a renowned chef.

But when he was clumsily designing this ruseâ''which included a suspicion-diverting story about him going to work for a hedge fundâ''he apparently overlooked one fatal defect. He hadnâ''t figured out how to prevent his former colleagues at Intel from discovering that he was having his chips and eating them too. Once they caught a whiff of what he was up to, his duplicity was sniffed out with simple system access check. Now his goose is cooked.

Underground Coal Combustion


An article in the Wall Street Journal reports on a technology it says is getting a lot of attention in China, which itâ''misleadingly, I believeâ''refers to as underground coal gasification. That makes it sound as if coal is gasified, as in IGCC, creating a syngas thatâ''s burned. But actually the technology seems to more closely resemble oxyfiring, a technology Vattenfall is just now demonstrating for the first time at larger-than-laboratory scale at a plant in East Germany. In the approach described in the Journal, coal is ignited underground and fed a piped-down stream of pure oxygen; the combustion yields nitrogen-free gases including carbon dioxide, which can be separated and kept underground.

The Journal says this technology was invented in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and demonstrated at a large scale in Uzbekistan.

Coal combustion in China and India is the biggest single aspect of the long-term climate problem, and was the subject of a two-issue special report in IEEE Spectrum, in November and December 1999.

UPDATE, 9/18/08:

My fellow energy writer and editor Peter Fairley has alerted me to an accuracy in this blog. From the cryptic Wall Street Journal description of the technology, I came away with the impression that it was closely analogous to oxyfiring, where coal is burned in an atmosphere of pure oxygen. Underground coal gasification is in fact more closely analogous to IGCC, inasmuch as a syngas consisting of carbon monoxide and hydrogen is created, as well as methane and carbon dioxide. The combustible gases can be burned at the surface to drive turbines; in some situations at least, the carbon dioxide can be stored in the subsurface voids left by the gasified coal.

A basic description of the process and its variants can be found at:


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