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Beware of Those Green Jobs and Tax Claims

Today, June 18, General Electric issued a report claiming that U.S. subsidies for wind energy are more than repaid by added tax revenues accruing to the Federal government. Yesterday, the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, with backing from a collection of politicians and dignitaries, unveiled an analogous study arguing that many thousands of new jobs will be created if the country embarks on a new round of nuclear power plant construction. In an economy beset by outsourcing, rising unemployment, and straitened tax bases, these are enticing prospectsâ''and like any siren sounds, they should be treated warily at best.

GE, which has almost $2.5 billion invested in wind farms, says that in 2007, such farms produced a net benefit to the U.S. Treasury of $250 million, taking into account tax revenues from the farms themselves, vendors, and workers. CASE says that if the United States proceeds with construction of the 30 reactors currently under consideration, 12,000 to 21,000 new jobs would be added: each new reactor under construction could require as many a 4,000 workers at peak periods, and each operating reactor would provide 400-700 â''high-payingâ'' jobs.

Nobody denies that promotion of green energy projects can bring many benefits, including enhancement of the countryâ''s global competitiveness in emerging markets. But claims about how many jobs or how much net tax revenue such projects will generate are completely without merit unless energy projects are compared to each other.

The country needs more energy, and especially more clean energy, and somehow it will get it. Itâ''s interesting to ask how many jobs and how much revenue will be created, along all the alternative paths for generating the extra needed energy. But treating any one path in isolation from the others is essentially meaningless.

NASA's Spacesuits of the Future Are in the Works

Look for astronauts to soon be sporting a bold new look.

The U.S. space agency has commissioned the creation of a line of new spacesuits for its upcoming Constellation Program. NASA announced last week that it is bestowing a US $184 million contract to Oceaneering International Inc. of Houston, Tex., to develop a pair of next-generation protective gear for its travelers to the Moon and beyond.

According to NASA, one of the Constellation suits will primarily meet the needs of astronauts for extravehicular activities while traveling in space and the other will be used for surface activities on the Moon. Collectively, they will be called the Constellation Space Suit System.

"The award of the spacesuit contract completes the spaceflight hardware requirements for the Constellation Program's first human flight in 2015," said Jeff Hanley, Constellation program manager at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston.

NASA stated that it will need suits for as many as four astronauts on Moon voyages and as many as six space-station travelers at a time. During early, short-duration lunar missions, the Constellation suits will only need to hold up to a week's worth of surface work. Later missions, though, will require them to be rugged enough to operate for months.

The cost-plus-award-fee spacesuit contract includes a basic performance period from June 2008 to September 2014, NASA noted. Oceaneering International and its subcontractors will design, develop, test, and evaluate the suits; they will then be responsible for manufacturing, assembling, and overseeing the first flight of the suit components. The subcontractors include: Air-Lock Inc. of Milford, Conn.; David Clark Co. of Worcester, Mass.; Cimarron Software Services Inc. of Houston; Harris Corporation of Palm Bay, Fla.; Honeywell International Inc. of Glendale, Ariz.; Paragon Space Development Corp. of Tucson, Ariz.; and United Space Alliance of Houston.

"I am excited about the new partnership between NASA and Oceaneering," said Glenn Lutz, JSC project manager for spacesuit systems. "Now it is time for our spacesuit team to begin the journey together that ultimately will put new sets of boot prints on the Moon."

In a statement on its Web site, Mark Gittleman, vice president and general manager of Oceaneering Space Systems said: "We have a world-class team of companies and individuals who are all committed to NASA.... We have been working together with NASA for some time and are fully prepared to meet all of the requirements for the program."

Court to Inventors: Pay Those Fees or Else

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On 10 June 2008, a three-judge panel for the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) affirmed a lower court decision that denied Corliss Orville â''Cobâ'' Burandtâ''s request to reinstate his patent on variable valve timing technology, which had expired due to unpaid maintenance fees. Barring either an appeal for a hearing in front of all 12 CAFC judges or an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, this decision effectively ends Burandtâ''s quest to regain control of his patents. Had he won, he might have been able to compel automakers like Toyota and Honda, which use variable valve timing technology in their hybrid car engines, to pay him royalty fees on his invention. Now heâ''s left wondering what might have been had he been able to fight for control of his patents from his former partner and patent assignee IRI Holdings before the company let them devolve into the public domain.

Working pro bono, Burandtâ''s legal team, led by Scott F. Yarnell, along with Donna M. Praiss, Elizabeth M. Wieckowski and Eugene C. Rzudcidlo all of Hunton & Williams LLP as well as patent attorney and IEEE member George Macdonald, argued that the United States Patent and Trademark Office and its director, Jon W. Dudas, acted capriciously in denying Burandt's petition to reinstate his patent.

The argument rested in part on Burandtâ''s extraordinary circumstances (detailed in my Spectrum article Down and Out in Ham Lake and in a radio segment for NPR's Living on Earth), which his lawyers said prevented him as the equitable title-holder from paying the maintenance fees. The three-judge CAFC panel sided with the USPTO and held that that Burandt could not be granted an opportunity to pay the maintenance fees past due on patents that the legal owner of the patent, IRI Holdings of Minneapolis, had intentionally allowed to expire. The court held, â''Here, IRI, as the legal title holder of the patent, was the party responsible for paying the maintenance fee. The record demonstrated that IRI failed to exercise reasonable care in ensuring that the maintenance fee would be paid in a timely manner. Indeed, the record was devoid of any evidence suggesting that IRI took any steps to make timely payment of the maintenance fee. Rather, the record indicated that IRI allowed the â''406 patent to expire, as it had deliberately allowed three others of Burandtâ''s patents to expire. As such, under the guidance set forth in Ray (Ray v. Lehman, 55 F.3d 606 (Fed. Cir. 1995)], we find no clear error of judgment or any abuse of discretion with regard to the Directorâ''s conclusion that unavoidable delay was not shown.â''

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I talked with Macdonald last week by phone. He was going to huddle with the Hunton & Williams team and Burandt to determine whether or not to proceed down the final open legal avenues. Macdonald read about Burandtâ''s plight in Spectrum and took on his case, paid overdue fees himself, and hooked Burandt up with Hunton & Williams, a firm famous for representing NTP against RIM in a case where NTP prevailed to the tune of $612.5 million.

While Burandt wants to fight on until the bitter end, neither CAFC or the Supremes seem likely to take on the case. Then again, stranger things have happenedâ''like a company that owned the basic technology behind todayâ''s booming hybrid car market just letting the patents expire, losing itself and potentially its inventor, Burandt, tens of millions of dollars.

A Way Out of U.S. Nuclear Waste Impasse?

The issue of Science magazine published today, June 13, contains an important commentary about how the intractable nuclear waste problem might be solved. Isaac J. Winograd and Eugene H. Roseboom Jr, retired senior scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey, suggest creating the proposed repository for high-level nuclear wastes at Yucca Mountain in stages, starting with a pilot facility. Their views have some weight inasmuch as they take creditâ''or blame?â''for having conducted the studies that led to the selection of the hugely contested Nevada site in the first place.

There are at least two ways of recounting the history that led to the current impasse. If you asked me, Iâ''d tell you that in 1989 Luther J. Carter, a respected former news writer for Science magazine, wrote a book for Resources for the Future in which he said essentially this: if weâ''re ever going to solve the nuclear waste problem, we have to just pick a site more or less arbitrarily, and thenâ''damn the torpedos!â''ram it through. What better location than the place where the United States had tested nuclear weapons all through the fifties, a place already thoroughly contaminated by radiation? (Thatâ''s a caricature of Carterâ''s views, to be sure, but I believe he put it pretty much like that to me personally, when I discussed the situation with him a few years later.) What Carter and RFF failed to take into account, in any event, is the degree to which Nevada opinion would rally in the interest of blocking a Yucca Mountain facility. As a result, Nevadaâ''s congressional delegation could be counted on to block creation of the repository at every opportunity, and any presidential candidate vying in a Nevada primary would be sorely tempted to pledge opposition to the project.

Winograd and Roseboom tell the story a little differently. More than a quarter century ago, they say, they proposed storing wastes â''in areas with deep water tables, specifically within the several-hundred-meter-thick unsaturated zones common to the arid and semi-arid Southwest USA.â'' That led directly to a focus on the Great Basin and, within it, to Yucca Mountain. Nonetheless, when Congress passed legislation in 1987 selecting the site for a repository, the bill immediately became known, as the authors say, as the â''screw Nevada act.â'' Technical study followed upon technical study, it soon becoming clear that scientists and engineers would never reach full agreement about long-term risks. Then came a virtual death knell on July 9, 2004, when the generally conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the integrity of the site would have to be guaranteed not just for 10,000 yearsâ''the standard up to the thenâ''but for as much as a million years.

The appeals court decision put nuclear waste strategy into a dead-end. To get out, Winograd and Roseboom argue, â''it behooves the earth science community . . . to inform the courts, the public, and legislators that . . . the fate of HLWs over times frames of hundreds of millennia is not knowable.â'' To win back public confidence, they suggest, build a succession of repositories at Yucca Mountain, evaluate them one at a time, retrieve wastes as necessary, and ultimately SOLVE THE PROBLEM.

The Beauty of Obsolete Electronics

By now, we're all painfully aware of how quickly technological innovation can turn a brag-worthy, state of the art machine into an anachronistic door stop. The quick pace of improvement certainly has its costs (Spectrum editor Sandra Upson has chronicled how electronic obsolescence chews up tax money and IEEE TV has a nice segment about the challenges of recycling "end of life devices"), but I continue to be impressed with what happens when you mix a little ingenuity with old technology. It's nice to see old machines we knew and love injected with new purpose. Take this video made by James Houston, for example. Who'd have thought that combining a Sinclair ZX Spectrum 8-bit PC, a HP Scanjet 3c scanner, an Epson LX-86 printer, and an array of ten hard drives could make for such a compelling reinterpretation of Radiohead's song Nude? (You probably want to skip ahead to about the 1:09 mark when the song actually starts).


Big Ideas (don't get any) from James Houston on Vimeo.

From James's description of the project:

Based on the lyric (and alternate title) "Big Ideas: Don't get any" I grouped together a collection of old redundant hardware, and placed them in a situation where they're trying their best to do something that they're not exactly designed to do, and not quite getting there.

It doesn't sound great, as it's not supposed to.

I really like the idea of old electronic devices struggling to learn new tricks. Of course, many old electrical components work just as they were designed to--I'm thinking of vacuum tubes in amplifiers or individual transistors in a digital clock. So what devices do you miss or remember fondly? If you have any ideas for DIY projects that re-purpose old technology, we'd love to hear about it.

And bonus points if together we can think up some way to make use of the computing power of the 426 000 cell phones Americans get rid of each day...

An eBay for offshoring healthcare

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Yesterday, I blogged about some of the great ideas presented at this weekâ''s Launch Silicon Valley. But one idea pitched gave me the shudders. Not that it wouldn't necessarily work as a business, but itâ''s got problems, and it says something about the nature of our countryâ''s health care system that itâ''s even being talked about.

The company, a Silicon Valley startup tagged PreviMed, is offering what company founder Atul Salgaonkar characterized as a sort of eBay for offshoring of health care. The company has picked a market segmentâ''necessary, but not urgent, medical procedures. It has started identifying internationally certified hospitals around the world that do such procedures. And it is looking to make deals with insurance companies and employers. The idea, as I understood it, is that a patient that needs a procedure, say, a knee operation, releases information about his case to Previmed, which posts it on a secure web site. Overseas medical institutions bid for the job, submitting treatment plans and prices. Someone (it wasnâ''t clear if that someone is the patient or the insurance company) selects a winning bid.

Previmed, like eBay, gets a percentage of the total fees paid. The insurance company saves a lot of money. The patient, potentially saves some money, I guess, perhaps having to make a lower copay, or paying lower insurance rates by agreeing to the system.

But then, what, the patient is sitting on a plane, traveling alone to a foreign hospital? Iâ''m assuming the package covers the patientâ''s travel expenses, but what about the family and friends that would normally support someone undergoing a medical procedure? Somehow, I think those travel expenses arenâ''t covered.

The customer for this service, Salgaonkar made clear, is the insurance companies. And I guess thatâ''s why it creeps me out. I remember at one point struggling to find an in-network OB that I felt comfortable with, annoyed with my insurance companies for limiting my choices. But this boggles the mind. I sat listening to the presentation, imagining my insurance company saying, no problem, go ahead and have that surgery, hereâ''s your plane ticket.

I donâ''t think so.

Photo credit: picsfrmbkk

Thirty startups in high tech show-and-tell at Launch Silicon Valley 08

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Thirty tech startups, selected from a field of 266, took the stage at Launch Silicon Valley Tuesday afternoon. Held at Microsoftâ''s Mountain View conference center, the event is the flagship conference of the Silicon Valley Association of Startup Entrepreneurs.

The stars of the afternoon, by popular vote, were Dayak, Loadstar Sensors, Triggit, Sensear, uTest, and Dial2Do. Dayak makes an online tool that matches employers looking to fill jobs with recruiters able to find candidates; employers post for free, setting the fee that theyâ''re willing to pay recruiters for a successful hire. Loadstar Sensors builds compact capacitive load sensors for automotive, aerospace, medical device, and industrial applications, and is currently developing a 2mm by 2.5mm pressure sensor. Triggit is an ad management technology to help web publishers embed advertising into their sites. Sensear is speech-enhancing technologyâ''more on that in a bit. uTest is a web-based platform for software testing that lets testing be distributed to people around the world. And Dial2Do is a phone service that uses voice recognition to let users send emails, text message, and create reminders.

My picks were a little different. (I admit that I didnâ''t see the presentations of all the

selected winners; presentations went on simultaneously in two separate venues, I zipped back and forth but couldnâ''t catch them all.) I completely agreed that Sensear stood out from the crowd. This sp1.jpg

technology out of Australia uses microphone arrays and digital signal processing techniques to sort out speech from noise in very noisy environments, the kind of places in which ear protection is required, or at least a very good idea. It doesnâ''t completely eliminate background noise, so you can tell if youâ''re about to be hit by a car, for example, but cuts it down, and then amplifies the speech. Besides industrial applications, Justin Miller, CEO sees the earplugs (about $300 to $550, depending on whether or not they talk to Bluetooth cell phones) used in the military, by bartenders, and, eventually, by all of us baby boomers who went to too many rock concerts.

Another type of earpiece caught my attention as well. Silicon Valley company Kleer demonstrated a proprietary wireless Kleerbuds.jpgtechnology for transmitting audio, to wireless earbuds, headphones, or remote speakers. Given how tangled I tend to get in my iPod headphone cord when exercising, this definitely looks like a winner, and the company has already licensed the technology to consumer products manufacturers.

I also was impressed by Ion Applications, a Florida company making handheld ion detection devices that can be used for explosives 600_SUBJECT_SCREENING-1.jpgscreening in airports, drug detection, even air quality monitoring in semiconductor clean rooms; in its current configuration, it resembles a handheld hair dryer. Alexander Lowe, vice president of sales and marketing, said that devices with comparable sensitivity today are hugeâ''think of the large portals that screen for explosives at airports. He envisions airport screeners walking up and down the lines of passengers scanning for explosive residue, a method that would enable every passenger to be screened without slowing down the boarding process.

Theory behind Nanotechnology Trade Shows and a Nanotechnology Industry

Nanotechnology over the last seven years since the inception of the NNI in 2001 has had more than its share of conferences, seminars and other assorted meetings. These are usually informational or provide some kind of networking that could lead to some kind of transactions.

But one incarnation of event that there has not been a lot of is expos or tradeshows. Nonetheless, they do exist and the two largest events of this type of are the nano tech event held each year in Japan and the NSTI Nanotech event held each year in the US. With the latter US event, a large component of the meeting is that of the presentations, or the conference element.

Nonetheless there is some expo element, and I became intrigued to see what was being exhibited at a nanotech trade show seven years on from the launching of the NNI when I saw this blog entry from Information Week. I did a little research and discovered by my unofficial count that exhibitors for this yearâ''s NSTI event that concluded on June 5th reached about 221. Okay itâ''s not the nearly 3,000 exhibitors at CES last January, but no one was expecting it to be.

However, it is not exactly heartening to see what makes up a large portion of the list of exhibitors: regional economic development groups, university and national labs, a number of microscopy tool companies, and a few companies focusing on nanomaterials. There are no Intels, IBMs or AMDs, or large players in any of the market sectors nanotech is supposed to be impacting: pharmaceuticals, automotive, and the like.

This is not a knock against the organizers, who have annually put on the largest nanotech event in the US for years now, but is rather an observation that strengthens the argument that nanotechnology is not an industry but an enabling technology.

Think of nanotechnology, or specifically a nanotechnology trade show, in the terms of a trade show for gold during the great Gold Rush. Who would be your exhibitors? Certainly, your pick and shovel suppliers (read, microscopy tool companies), real estate brokers for the areas around the best gold sites (read, your regional economic development boards), etc.

On the other hand, if you had a tradeshow for one of the market sectors gold would impact, say jewelry, you could easily imagine a large number of jewelers and all the elements in the supply chain from gold to the final jewelry product wanting to exhibit.

Itâ''s the same for nanotech. There are huge trade show and exhibitions for electronics, pharmaceuticals, automotive, etc. Whatâ''s the difference? These are industries, nanotech is a technology.

New York State Gets Behind Oxyfuel Carbon Capture

In a somewhat startling development, New Yorkâ''s governor David Paterson announced on June 10 that the state will support construction of an experimental â''oxyfiredâ'' electric generation plant, in which coal will be burned in an atmosphere of almost pure oxygen, so that nitrogen emissions are eliminated and carbon capture simplified. Swedenâ''s Vattenfall and Franceâ''s Alstom are completing a similar demonstration plant in eastern Germany, as described in the â''winners & losersâ'' January issue of Spectrum, and Babcock & Wilcox has had a serious oxyfuel R&D program in the United States. But oxyfuel has not been the mainstream approach to carbon capture on this side of the Atlantic, and New Yorkâ''s Jamestown plantâ''if builtâ''may be the worldâ''s first quasi-commercial demonstration of the technology.

Earlier this year, the U.S. energy department cancelled support for Future Gen, a public-private IGCC plant, in which coal is gasified, yielding a post-combustion mixture of carbon dioxide and hydrogen. That had been the overwhelmingly dominant approach to carbon capture in the United States. With FutureGen and IGCC facing increasingly uncertain prospects, the door appears to opening for alternative paths to carbon capture such as oxyfuelâ''though Spectrum bloggers have had radically different takes on the implications.

The Jamestown project, located in western New Yorkâ''s Chautauqua County, emerged from an industrial alliance of Praxair and Foster Wheeler with Dresser-Rand, E&E, Battelle, SUNY Buffalo, and AES. Praxair, a leading supplier of industrial gases, would provide both the oxygen supply and carbon capture technologies, while Foster Wheeler would build the fluidized-bed stream generators. New York State will invest up to $6 million to support development of the project, which could end up costing hundreds of millions of dollars to complete.

The governorâ''s rather daring decision to put the state behind the project is all the more striking because Paterson only recently assumed the top job in the wake of a sex scandal that toppled his predecessor. His announcement this week drew praise from unions such as brotherhood of electrical workers and the boilermakers but criticism from environmental and public interest groups such as NYPIRG, Sierra Club, and the American Lung Association. They declared it premature, given that environmental reviews are not yet complete.

Whether or not the plant is ultimately built and succeeds, the decision to pursue it puts New York into a league with countries like Sweden that are moving aggressively to test carbon capture and storage technology. Already, as the governorâ''s office reminded its constituents this week, New York is the most important member of the northeast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which has been developing this countryâ''s first cap-and-trade system for carbon, and it has adopted a renewables portfolio standard that seeks to make 25 percent of the stateâ''s electricity green by 2013. Its â''15 by 15â'' initiative aims to cut energy usage, by 2015, 15 percent below business-as-usual projections.

Requiem for a technology savior?

Americans have a long history of offering technological solutions to problems in Africa that may or may not exist -- or certainly don't exist in the form that the Americans imagine. From the start, Nicholas Negroponte, the computer visionary and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was handicapped by a glaring lack of knowledge about life in African cities and villages. Worse, he behaved as if his lack of knowledge was a blessing, since he could create a beauitful engineering solution unencumbered with messy "inputs" from the African ground.

Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child project, however much a mis-match with African needs, has proved to be a tremendous stimulus for new thinking about low-cost computers. Negroponte's XO Laptop, with its innovative design and valuable hand-powered supplementary energy source, raised the bar for what is possible at low-cost in portable computing. New offerings -- from Intel's Classmate PC to the tiny Asus Eee computer -- demonstrate that Negroponte, despite his sincerity, has no monopoly on creative thinking about appropriate computer technology for African kids.

In the end, Negroponte may be best viewed as a successful promoter of a groudbreaking idea rather than as a technological innovator. His quest to assist African children in meeting their computing needs seems already to be overtaken by various other groups who are offering either more appealing alternatives or simply conventional laptops that satisfy the requirements of better-off Africans for quality -- and at prices -- between $300 to $500 -- that are low-enough.

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