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Getting on the Big Green Bus

IMG_2128.JPGThis morning I walked a few blocks from my house and waited for the bus. The Big Green Bus, that is, a cooking-oil fueled, solar-panel powered, Dartmouth-college-student carrying, sustainable-living-promoting road show.

The bus was a little late, thanks to freeway accidents and massive traffic tie-ups. By the time it arrived, a crowd of moms, kids, and local journalists had gathered.

The point of the 40-state, 20,000 km summer tour, recent Dartmouth graduate and bus rider Ro Wang told me, is to make people realize that small changes in your lifestyle now can make a meaningful difference to the environment in the future, and you donâ''t have to make big sacrifices.

â''You donâ''t have to go back to the ice age,â'' says Dartmouth environmental studies major Nathan Mazonson.

Dartmouth mechanical engineering major Trey Roy pointed out that the twelve students and recent graduates on the tour were not giving up their high-tech college student lifestyle. Thanks to five top-of-the-line 215 W Sunpower solar panels, donated by T.J. Rodgers, and eight golf cart batteries, the students have flat-screen television, surround sound, videogames, computers, cell phones, and a refrigerator and freezer to hold their snacks day and night. On windy days, they stick a wind turbine out on the roof for a 400 W power boost.

The bus itself runs on a little diesel (to warm up the engine for the first five minutes of driving) and a lot of used vegetable oil, collected from restaurants that fry food. â''Weâ''ve never paid for the oil,â'' Mazonson said. And if you get to close to the exhaust, youâ''ll get hit with the smell of stale french fries.

The road trip is sponsored by Newmanâ''s Own, Waste Management, Timberlandâ''s Earthkeepers, Changents, and Burtâ''s Bees.

Below, a photo tour:

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ON THE BUS. Twelve Dartmouth students and recent grads, including environmental studies major Nathan Mazonson (left), mechanical engineering major Trey Roy (center), and physics major Elysa Corin are riding 20,000 km this summer to encourage people to make lifestyle changes to help the environment.

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VEGGIE POWERED. The Big Green Bus runs on waste vegetable oil, with a parallel diesel system that briefly warms the oil and can be switched in when fast food restaurants can't be found.

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CLEAN OIL. Two filtering systems in the back of the bus, plus a final filtering pass near the engine, make sure french fry fragments don't clog the fuel lines.

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THANKS, TJ! Five solar panels donated by Cypress Semiconductor's TJ Rodgers mean that bus riders don't have to leave their high-tech toys, like multimedia systems and videogame players, behind.

More adventures in converting to digital television

11.Dig.TV.Blog.gif The first step in my attempt to convert to digital televisionâ''use my coupon card to buy a converter at Wal-Martâ''went smoothly.

Since then, Iâ''ve hit a few bumps in the road. I wanted to buy a different brand of converter with my second coupon; I have two TVs, and I wanted to see if there were any differences between brands. I thought Iâ''d try Radio Shack. They were sold out.

I took a brief trip to New Jersey; while I was there, I thought Iâ''d trade in the converter coupons Iâ''d had sent to my mother and my aunt and hook up their boxes since I was on this converter bandwagon. There wasnâ''t a converter to be had on store shelves. Not at Radio Shack, Wal-Mart, Kmart, the three of the seven official converter program retailers with stores in town.

Back at home, I hooked up that first converter I bought, an RCA branded box. I normally get all the normal networks and a few UHF stations from my rooftop antenna. The local DTV guides tell me I should be picking up 44 digital stations. I got a tiny subset of that, essentially, 7, 11, and 54. Only 54 (and three substations using the same frequency) came in without horrendous pixilation and freezes. This was not an auspicious beginning.

I went back to Radio Shack to make another attempt at buying a converter, and to ask why the heck I was only getting in a couple of channels in this supposedly signal-laden environment. The store was still sold out, but with my coupon due to expire in three days, I took the salesmanâ''s advice to pay now and have my converter box shipped to me in a few days. I should have gotten it by now. I donâ''t have it yet. I also asked him about the channel problem. He said the RCA converter I bought at Wal-Mart wasnâ''t any good, and the new second-generation converter (second generation? These things havenâ''t been out that long) he was selling me would do much much better. Truth, or opportunity to badmouth a competitor? Weâ''ll see.

While I giving the salesman my shipping information, a big guy walked in with a pile of long boxes. I idly watched him stack them on the floor, and then realized that they were antennas. UHF antennas, to pick up those digital signals that are decidedly not getting to my digital converter via my decades old VHF antenna. Hmmm... Iâ''m thinking I need one of those, but had better check with my husband about how he feels about venturing up on our very steep roof.

Back at home; I called Mike Sherman, who represents Antennas Direct. I asked him if my problem could indeed be my old VHF antenna. Most likely, he said, but possibly also my ancient antenna cable. Heâ''d send me an antenna and cable to try, and my husband agreed to make the climb up onto the roof when it arrives.

I thought, at this point, Iâ''d be reporting on a successful conversion to digital television, perhaps a brief struggle to figure out which cable plugs where into the converter box/tv/dvd player; and that Iâ''d now be happily watching all sorts of new digital channels. But instead, it looks like my adventures in digital conversion continue.

For more tales from the digital television transition, as well as links to in depth coverage about digital television technology, see IEEE Spectrum's Special Report: THE DAY ANALOG TV DIES.

Out of Africa: Black Power!

Last Wednesday evening, I dined in a fashionable Nairobi restaurant with three recent graduates from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Big brains, these three young men have chosen to pursue a distinctly unusual set of inventive possibilities. They are seeking to design, engineer and implement new sources of energy for people in the developing world living "off the grid."

Step back a moment. For generations, the "grid" referred to the national electricity grid, the cornerstone of all power-generating activities in a given country. Throughout Africa and Asia, national grids are now straining to generate sufficient electricity to meet the growing appetites of bustling cities.

For rural dwellers in the developing world, large technological systems often bypass them completely. In Kenya, for instance, villages that are not reached by the national grid must survive for years -- if not an eternity -- before the grid reaches them. The power demands by city dwellers are simply too urgent to put rural needs very high on the electricity agenda.

Into the breach comes Distributed World Power, a Pasadena, Calif. company that wants to specialize in off-grid electricity sources. Backed by private funds, Distributed World Power sounds like the name for a political movement, not an energy startup. At dinner, John Howard, vice president of business development for the company and the oldest of the three Caltech grads, explained that Asia would probably be the best region for the company. But personally, he was drawn to Africa, Kenya in particular.

Howard and his fellow Caltech alumni had just spent the past week sleeping in remote Kenyan villages, far off the grid. The trio was assessing the potential for wind-generation. They also were looking at solar because, as Howard explained, consumption of off-the-shelf solar systems was greater in Kenya than anywhere else on the continent other than South Africa.

"They are straightforward engineering options," Howard said, that could deliver vast amounts of off-grid electricity to African villages. Yet the non-technical issues loom large in Africa -- and much larger than in usually-orderly and effecient Asian countries. So Howard questioned the wisdom of investing heavily in parts of Africa too.

"Maybe we try one country," he said.

The problem is identifying partners, which isn't easy in sub-Saharan Africa, where "good" partners often fetch a high price. The Cal Tech grads can't roll out systems on their own; rather they prefer to do the less-costly and more creative part of the job, namely conceiving and designing systems.

"The distances in Africa are enormous," Howard said, confessing this after a full day of traveling from a rural area to Nairobi. Indeed, densely-packed Asia, linked by all manner of transport, is quite a contrast from sub-Saharan Africa, where despite high birth rates the landscape at times seems almost lunar, bereft of people.

In such a region, can bright young Americans make a difference. John Howard thinks he and his Caltech alums can but he admits, "these are early days."

Memristors: Coming soon to a brain near you.

HP Labs has wrestled the memristor into submission. Or, to put it less hyperbolically, by engineering control over the memristor, they've made it possible to design integrated circuits that incorporate the devices.

EETimes reported earlier this week that memristors, the fourth element of circuit design theory, will likely be the basis for HP's 2009 RRAM (resistive random-access memory) prototype chips. RRAM, a new kind of non-volatile memory that could be faster than flash, is also being pursued at other goliaths like Sharp, Samsung, and Fujitsu. But HP's plans go way beyond low-power chip design. Analog memristors, the researchers speculate, are a promising route to chips that operate more like the human brain than like a computer.

"RRAMs are our near term goal, but our second target for memristors, in the long term, is to transform computing by building adaptive control circuits that learn," said [HP Labs principal investigator for memristors Duncan] Stewart. "Analog circuits using electronic synapses will require at least five more years of research."

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The same picture you will see in every article about memristors for the foreseeable future.
PHOTO CREDIT: R. STANLEY WILLIAMS

Back in April, HP anounced their successful manifestation of the hypothetical fourth passive circuit element, the memristor, first proposed by Leon Chua in a 1971 paper. The memristor joined the existing holy trinity of circuit elements-- resistors, capacitors and inductors-- with implications that were frankly kind of staggering. At the time, Stan Williams told me that they already had a chip humming away in the lab-- this wasn't just a bunch of hypothetical design specs. But the discovery met with much skepticism:

There is nothing new or revolutionary here. Bulk resistance versus incremental resistance is well known. Nonlinear resistances are well known. Resistance which varies depending upon the history of the device are well known. The claim that a fundamentally new circuit element has been found is overblown.

Similar fightin' words could be found in an uncharacteristic slapfight that broke out in the Spectrum Online comments section.

But now, EETimes reports (in what is by the way a must-read article) that HP labs "has demonstrated how to control its memristor material, which changes resistance in response to current flowing through it:

"We now have experimental proof that our memristor behaves the way our theory predicts," said [Stewart]. "Plus, we have now demonstrated engineering control over the memristor device structures, which will enable us to build real chips very soon."

HP Labs maintains that because of this property, massive memristor arrays could enable brain-like learning.

In the brain, a synapse is strengthened whenever current flows through it, similar to the way resistance is lowered by flowing current through a memristor. Such neural networks could learn to adapt by allowing current to flow in either direction as needed.

In case I haven't infuriated enough people, I will now half-jokingly mention the Singularity.

US Air Force Tanker Bid to Be Reopened

The US Department of Defense reopened the bidding between Boeing and the Northrop-Grumman/EADS/Airbus consortium for the midair refueling tanker contract yesterday afternoon because of major flaws the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found in the original source selection. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates made the announcement, and took away the source selection authority from the US Air Force and gave it instead to Mr. John Young Jr., undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.

Acting Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley said that even though the â''GAO's conclusions show that even in a large, complex procurement with considerable staff resources and oversight, work accomplished by our contracting personnel, our warfighters and our engineers is not always adequately prepared to withstand the detailed audits and the legal challenges that we can now expect,â'' Air Force acquisition is not â''fatally flawed.â''

The Air Force will still get to manage the program after the contract is awarded (and hopefully not protested).

In a bit of jaw-boning (or wishful thinking), Young said, â''I think that would probably be the only silver lining in this, is the possibility that both teams decide to sharpen their pencils and offer the taxpayer and the warfighter an even better deal.â''

Young better be careful for what he wishes for. â''Optimistic biddingâ'' â'' or buying-in â'' is a major reason for procurement messes, as the GAO once more recently pointed out.

Out of Africa: Cooking with Human Waste

The shanty towns of Africa's great cities are incubators for material innovations that easily escape the ambitions of people living in wealthier surroundings. In Nairobi's Kibera slum, the latest sensation is a "bio-latrine" that converts human waste into energy that produces gas for lighting and domestic cooking.

The technology behind the bio-latrine was developed by the governments of Kenya and France. Under a project supported by the United Nation's Habitat agency, about 20 bio-latrines that convert waste into gas will be installed in four areas of Kibera.

The bio-latrine consists of a shallow pit latrine, a "bio-digester" that produces gas and fertilizer; and a dispenser. Above the latrine are toilets, a kitchen and a community meeting room.

The bio-latrine requires cooperation among neighbors -- and that may be its undoing. Crime in Kibera runs high; so does envy and conflict between neighbors. Yet the problem of human waste in African shanty towns is large and growing. Informal settlements in cities can't wait for government to act. Small-scale technologies, under the control of ordinary people, provide one answer to the glaring need in Nairobi -- and other African cities -- for better sanitation and less costly fuel for cooking.

While the bio-latrine is surprisingly complicated for an "appropriate" technology, it does address the two most vexing problems of poor Africans in makeshift neighborhoods and even schools. And that's reason enough for more experiments with them.

A Website Devoted to Nanotech Conferences...the Apocalypse is Nigh

For most involved in nanotechnology, even tangentially, one must learn early on the survival technique of how to sort through the truckload of conferences that are held weekly throughout the world, or even how to avoid them entirely.

The easiest way has been to use various websites like Nanotech-Now that provide a pretty thorough list of everything going on. There are many other similar sites that I will not mention simply because I am sure I will forget one of them.

But now, for those who are somehow challenged by using any number of these other conference listing sites, there is a new website solely dedicated to listing conferences.

What I enjoyed in the press release announcing this website was this tidbit â''This is believed to be the only website exclusively devoted to meetings in the rapidly emerging field of nanotechnologyâ''. They could be wrong, but this is what they believed at the time of the press release. Nicely done. I am sure the lawyers were pleased with that little tap dance.

When the two great hyped â''industriesâ'' of the last decade align in such a senseless way, we are hard pressed not to see this as a sign of dark days to come.

Plug-in Priuses: Toyota Dealers Getting Cold Feet?

Just a month ago, we told you that Hymotion named 4 Toyota dealers as official installers for its $9,995 plug-in conversion module for 2004-2008 Priuses.

Now, in a comprehensive piece in Green Car Advisor, the Edmunds.com blog on all matters automotive and green, Scott Doggett writes that two of the four seem to be getting cold feet.

There's a continuing story with much left to be played out here, but we wanted to bring you the latest update as soon as we could.

And what, dear readers, are your thoughts? Should Toyota permit its dealers to install Hymotion's kits--assuming the company can back up their claim that the kit passed all relevant new-car crash tests? If you chose to install a plug-in kit in your Prius, how much would the liability issues worry you?

A Little Bit of Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing When Discussing Nanotech

I came across this tidbit that gave me a bit of chuckle.

Apparently, itâ''s an excerpt from a book entitled â''The Design of Life.â'' I am guessing that the book is supposed to be a kind of defense of â''Intelligent Designâ''. But I am not sure. I canâ''t be bothered with that kind of drivel to actually find out.

But the reasoning process used in this little snippet is hysterical. Apparently, skeptics believed nanotechnology would never work because â''such small machines are unworkable.â'' Umh, should someone put him in touch with the Foresight Institute and the National Nanotechnology Initiative just to get his definition of nanotech straight? Nahâ'¿

It turns out the skeptics reached their close-minded perspective based on â''Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principleâ''. Yikes! Gee and I always thought it was based on Van der Waal forces and Brownian motion, nothing quite as esoteric as quantum physics.

I am beginning to think there may be a new law in physics that states that anyone who uses the term â''Heisenbergâ''s Uncertainty Principleâ'' and is not more than well acquainted with physics is talking a lot of nonsense.

I understand that this is the norm in public debate, but for me itâ''s just a pity when nanotech gets dragged into it.

Overcoming the Funding Gap in Nanotech

About five years ago I helped organize a conference that contained a panel session called â''Bridging the Funding Gapâ''. At the time, this was a matter of some concern. How were innovations in nanotech going to move from government funding at research institutes and universities towards commercial markets?

The answers were not clear at the time, and now while things may be a little clearer they may be less hopeful.

This state of affairs is highlighted in a recent post over at TNTLog â''Can the VC Model Handle Emerging Technologies?â''. The answer seems to be an unequivocal â''noâ''.

As pointed out in the piece, the Venture Capital model (a 40-year-old model as pointed out in the article) requires some kind of financial exit within seven years of the initial investment. With early-stage companies developing emerging technologies, and in particular nanotech, seven years is just about where things get anywhere near markets.

The landscape today for many of these early-stage nanotech companies is like coming across one carcass of bones after another in the desert. Some of the brightest stars of nanotech five or six years ago have had their IP portfolios sold off for as little as $1,000.

To some extent, the funding gap question has been answered in that large companies are now spending the most money in R&D and innovation in nanotech. In other words, we are more likely to see the cure for cancer, the next breakthrough innovation in electronics, or a viable alternative energy source come from the labs of large industrial company than from a spin-out from a university lab.

But this model certainly does not cover all the possibilities for innovation, and will likely preclude important breakthroughs made outside of it to make it to market.

But the financing model for this type of innovation clearly does not seem to be the VC model. Whatever model is finally used, it is clear that it will need to stay in that investment for a lot longer than seven years.

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