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Nanowires Could Improve Fuel Cells...Not Make them Commercially Viable

I read today  a report  on recent research out of the University of Rochester in which long, platinum nanowires were used as catalysts in fuel cells.


Now that it has been more or less firmly established that carbon nanotubes are not particularly useful for hydrogen storage, it's time for nanomaterials to get back to their roots when it comes to fuel cells and for work to continue in improving the catalysts.


That's all well and good, but do we have to accompany this research with statements that are simply not  true like "People have been working on developing fuel cells for decades. But the technology is still not being commercialized," says James C. M. Li, the lead researcher of the projected in the piece cited above.  The article even clarifies this idea by saying "...fuel cells, which have until now been used largely for such exotic purposes as powering spacecraft."


I think what they must be getting at is that portable fuel cells have not developed into much of a commercial market because quite to the contrary I can point them into the direction of entire database of installed, stationary fuel cells around the globe.


It's time for a bit of honest talk. Various nanomaterials have demonstrated themselves at being pretty effective catalysts for fuel cells for some time now. It's not that new. But improving the catalysts is not the stumbling block for the wider commercial adoption of portable fuel cells for either your automobile or your laptop. In the former, the cost of producing hydrogen to supply the fuel cells remains prohibitively expensive and there is no infrastructure for a distribution network. In the latter, try to imagine getting past airline security with a half litre of methanol attached to the back of the laptop.


Yes, platinum is expensive and drives the cost of fuel cell pretty high, but in the list of obstacles facing the wider adoption of portable fuel cells, I would not put this at the top.

What Will the Data Center of the Future Look Like?

The New York Times Magazine has an article on data centers -- the massive (though invisible to most users) computing infrastructure that runs our web searches, email, blogs, tweets. The article does a good job describing the architecture of current mega data centers and the challenges in building them. But what I missed in the story is: Where do we go from here. What will the data center of the future look like?

Spectrum tried to offer an answer to this very question early this year. In the February '09 article "Tech Titans Building Boom," by UC Berkeley professor Randy H. Katz, we presented an illustration (below) of what a 1 million server data center might look like. That vision -- a roofless facility with hundreds of server-packed shipping containers -- was based in part on Microsoft's Generation 4 data center design. But I'm still wondering: Is that the future of the cloud? A parking lot crammed with steel boxes?

True, there's been some innovation, including an underground data center in Sweden and Google's patented servers-on-a-barge idea. But I guess I was hoping for some real breakthrough in data center design -- a real departure in how these facilities are built and operate. Just to throw out an idea, what about a data center based on AS/RS (Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems)? Picture servers piled vertically into high enclosures with robotic arms that attach power/cooling/network connections and replace defective parts.

Have a wild vision for the data center of the future? Let us know. If it's good we might even run it in the magazine.  

million server data center

The Million-Server Data Center. See a larger version here.

Illustration: Bryan Christie Design

The Digital TV switch was good for me

The Digital TV switch this weekend went smoothly in my San Francisco Bay Area home, more smoothly than I had anticipated. Admittedly, I spent lots of time, effort, and money getting ready for it—besides the converter boxes, I needed a new antenna, and my husband had to go up on the roof and replace our antenna twice before we got it right. Yeah, I lost one TV in the house—no antenna hookup for that third TV, and just too far from the transmitters to pick up a digital signal on rabbit ears.

But in spite of my pre-transition experience that foreshadowed problems with the analog shutdown—a dearth of English language stations and no American Idol viewing next season—we now have most of the channels we had before, plus a few extra, including a sports channel that has made it more difficult to pry certain family members off the couch.

The difference? Most stations in the San Francisco Bay Area changed their digital channels this weekend, in most cases to a much lower UHF or even to a VHF frequency. My understanding is that these new frequencies are somewhat less subject to attenuation, and the difference seems to be enough to put me inside instead of outside the reception footprint. So it looks like analog shutdown, after all, isn’t going to mean a monthly cable television bill in my mailbox.

The San Francisco Bay Area transition reportedly went forward with few hitches. According to a memo from Valari Staab of KGO television, KGO was able to resolve 80 percent of people’s problems receiving its signal on the phone, but acknowledges that, because it is being allowed to operate with more power than others assigned to Channel 6 or 7, the high-VHF frequencies, and broadcasting from its old analog antenna positioned at the top of Sutro Tower, it is having less issues than its brethren around the country. I may lose KGO for a while after mid-July, when it moves daytime broadcasts to an auxiliary antenna while crews are working to put new digital antennas for other stations up high on the tower. That work is expected to be complete in October. Staab also reported that local Best Buys have been running low on antennas.

In the rest of the country, reports, so far, are that things went smoothly. The FCC received nearly 800,000 calls this weekend; Chicago took an early lead as the spot with the most trouble. Volunteers around the country, from firefighters to members of Best Buy’s Geek Squad were standing by to help people hook up their converters. I just tried to explain to my mother, long distance, how to rescan for channels. I was unsuccessful; I gave her the Best Buy hotline, though I doubt she’ll take advantage of it. Fortunately, two channels in her area didn’t switch frequencies, so she’ll have something to watch until my next visit.

It may be some time, if ever, before we really know how many folks around the country were unable to make the transition, who either had to start paying for cable or satellite or adapt to a life without TV, because they are in DTV dead zones.

Report: Sun Micro to Scrap Big Chip Project

Beleaguered Sun Microsystems, the target of a current takeover deal, will scuttle its work on a new processor that had been intended to move the company into a profitable future, according to a report in today's New York Times.
The newspaper is reporting that unnamed insiders familiar with Sun's planning for the future have disclosed that the Santa Clara, Calif., computer maker will pull the plug on its ambitious multicore processor for next-generation servers code-named Rock.

After working on the Rock chip for more than five years, Sun may be ready to walk away from the expensive design process needed to finish the chip just as its executives are readying to turn over the reins of the company to leadership being filled by Oracle Corp., which has bid US $7.4 billion to acquire the ailing firm (please see Bolt from the Blue: Oracle, Not IBM, Captures Sun Micro).

While Sun CEO Jonathan Schwarz boasted two years ago that the Rock project would return his firm to profitability, the reality has been that the processor has been more difficult to perfect than anticipated, leading to a series of delays in its development.

Ironically for us at IEEE Spectrum, we've just published an article on the technical merits of the Rock processor (please see Sun's Rock CPU Could Be a Gem for Oracle). The new chip (which now may never see the light of day) was to have featured 16 processor cores employing a revolutionary technique for moving data around called transactional memory, which enables programs running on the chip to read from and write to memory registers more easily and rapidly.  

How today's news will play into the ongoing takeover discussions is an open question, but it seems clear that Sun would not have taken such a significant step without consulting Oracle's management.

And so it goes for the once-proud Sun, as it gets ready to set into the twilight.

Goodbye analog, I'm going to miss you

This morning I turned on the little TV that sits on top of the file cabinet in my home office. I bought it soon after 9/11, and typically use it for breaking news and major events, like presidential inaugurations. It gets three slightly snowy channels through a $10 rabbit-eared antenna; the antenna cable that drops through the walls and out through the floor in the family room and bedroom doesn’t make it over to this side of the house. That’s been fine for my purposes—breaking news tends to be covered across the networks, so three channels (ABC, NBC, and PBS) have been plenty.

There’s no breaking news today, so ordinarily this TV would be dark. But I plan on leaving it on from now until it’s getting nothing but static (or something called nightlight service that simply tells me my television is analog and needs a converter) as my personal farewell to analog television.

Because sometime between now and midnight tonight, the vast majority of analog broadcasting in the United States will cease.  Only a few low-power stations will remain. And since no converter box is going to be able to pull a digital signal from this particular pair of rabbit ears, the next stop for this little Sharp cathode ray tube television is the recycling center, where I can only hope it’s treated kindly and doesn’t end up hurting recycling workers or the environment.

I’ve got two other TVs in the house already hooked up to converter boxes, and a giant new antenna on the roof that enables those converter boxes to pull in a reasonable number of channels. But to date I mostly leave the converters turned off, since many of my favorite channels are, so far, only receivable on analog. That may change; along with analog shutdown comes the great frequency scramble, meaning channels I don’t get today, I might get tomorrow. Or not.


So tomorrow morning I’ll go over to those two TVs, turn on the converter boxes, and rescan for channels. I’ll have my fingers crossed, because here in the San Francisco Bay Area reception is spotty, and no one can really predict whether or not I’ll be have access to anywhere near the same menu of digital channels that I had in an analog world.

I doubt I’ll be the only one with my fingers crossed. Local broadcasters will be hoping not to lose viewers—and not to frustrate so many that their phone lines will be ringing off the hook come Saturday. The FCC will be hoping that they won’t be inundated by complaints, but they’ll have 4000 operators on call just in case. President Obama will be hoping that the transition goes smoothly, justifying the delay from the original date-certain of February 17th.

And in the next few weeks, we will see, because at this point, we just don’t know. As of last week, according to research firm Smith Geiger LLC, one out of eight folks who get their television over-the-air had yet to attempt hook up a converter box or digital television—Neilson estimates the number as just short of 3 million people. And that doesn’t count folks like me, who hooked it all up but still relies on analog for most of our TV watching.

So we will see if folks are thrilled with their new digital picture, or frustrated by their inability to receive anything at all without paying for cable or satellite. We’ll see what housebound elderly will do without baseball games to watch next week—I’m thinking of my 90-plus year old aunt and an 80-something former neighbor for whom snowy baseball games on ancient TVs provided constant companionship. I do hope it goes smoothly, that I—and every other over-the-air TV watcher in the country—is thrilled with the vast array of crystal clear channels and new wireless services that have been the promise of the digital transition. But we will see.

Semicon Industry Group Sees Hope After 2009

The downturn may be nearing for the semiconductor sector according to the trade group that monitors its health.

The Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) announced Friday that the manufacturers it represents should rebound in 2010 after slumping badly through the rest of 2009. The SIA said it is projecting sector sales to reach US $195.6 billion for the current year, a decline of 21.3 percent from sales of $248.6 billion the previous year.

The good news in the brief semi-annual estimate is that the SIA sees sales reaching $208.3 billion next year, a jump of 6.5 percent, followed by another 6.5 percent increase the year after, which would peg the income from microchips and processors climbing to $221.9 billion.

The SIA is the organization that represents the public business interests of members such as IBM, Intel, and Texas Instruments.

Could the Earth Collide with Mars?

In an intriguing paper in the 11 June Nature, Jacques Laskar and Mickael Gastineau of the Paris Observatory report on their large-scale computer simulation, which explored orbital interactions among the nine planets in our solar system. Over timescales of billions of years, the accumulation of slight variations in the orbits very occasionally led to planetary disaster. Of the 2501 scenarios they ran, for instance, Earth collided with Mars 29 times.

So, OK, that would be bad. But look at it this way: it wouldn't happen for at least 3 billion years, and it sure would shorten the travel time to Mars.

You'll need a subscription to view the full paper, but Sid Perkins has a good summary at Science News.

FDA Has It All Figured Out When It Comes to Nanotechnology

Sometimes it's hard to figure out who is more mixed up in the EHS/nanotechnology debate. On the one hand you have government underestimating the problem and then on the other you have NGOs hyping the issue beyond all recognition.

Both sides seem determined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The latest example we have in this back and forth is Dr. Annette McCarthy of the FDA proclaiming last week to an assembly of food industry delegates at the IFT International Food Nanoscience Conference in Anaheim,  CA that: “We believe that the regulatory authority is sufficient to address nanotechnology but there are further questions we need to address.”

I helped to organize a conference three years ago on the impact of nanotechnologies in the food industry and there was an FDA spokesperson at that event as well. Their line of argument was almost identical to Dr. McCarthy's and even three years ago this attitude inspired frustrated sighs.

It's not clear what Dr. McCarthy was referring to specifically when she mentioned "further questions we need to address." But it's not clear how the current regulatory authority is sufficient but at the same time there are further questions that need to be addressed.

Have we entirely lost the capability of the diplomatic hedge? Just say, we're looking at the issue or some other vague and non-committal bit to keep at bay those who are just waiting to pounce on this kind bureaucratic arrogance as evidence of the need for a complete moratorium on nanotechnology.

New Element to Join Periodic Table, Seeks Official Name

Scientists in Germany have revealed the discovery of a new superheavy chemical element that they are tentatively calling ununbium, until an official body approves a permanent name.

Physicists at the GSI Helmholtz Center for Heavy Ion Research, in Darmstadt, announced yesterday that they had produced an element with the atomic number 112 in experiments going back many years.

Although their research first produced atoms of element 112, by their reckoning, in 1996, it would take years for their results to be confirmed by fellow physicists in Japan and other nations. That confirmation culminated this week in a letter from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) that recognized the discovery of a new element. By right of discovery, the Helmholtz Center team, led by principal investigator Sigurd Hofmann, will have the privilege of naming the new element, which they are calling ununbium for now, after the Latin word for 112. 

According to the GSI Helmholtz Center, Hofmann's team produced atoms of ununbium by shooting zinc ions through a 120-meter-long particle accelerator at a lead target. Smashing the two stable elements together fused some of their nuclei for very brief periods of time, but long enough to form atoms with their combined atomic numbers, or the number of protons in a nucleus, of zinc with 30 and lead with 82. The new element is so radioactively unstable, however, that it disintegrates quickly into charged particles and lighter atoms.

The officially confirmed discovery marks the sixth time over the last 28 years that scientists at the GSI Helmholtz Center have created new elements in their laboratories: element 107 is called bohrium, element 108 hassium, element 109 meitnerium, element 110 darmstadtium, and element 111 roentgenium.

"We are delighted that now the sixth element -- and thus all of the elements discovered at GSI during the past 30 years -- has been officially recognized," Hofmann said yesterday. "During the next few weeks, the scientists of the discovering team will deliberate on a name for the new element."

Dispatches from the Nanotechnology Frontier

Addressing the Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) issues surrounding nanotechnology has become critical for the future development of nanotechnologies across a number of application fields.


But in order to address these issues it is necessary to set standards for nomenclature, experimentation and microscopy, just to name a few.


This week out in Seattle, WA, a meeting of the ISO TC 229 (nanotechnologies) group is on going and its aim is to establish standards in these areas.


This ISO group is nothing new, it's been around a while. So to be honest, I am not sure where this meeting stands in its progress towards developing standards.


But we do have a new insight into the process as Skip Rung, President and Executive Director of the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI), is sending back dispatches from the meetings to Nanotech-Now.


Based on his first dispatch I expect that it will be some time before we have anything approaching a comprehensive set of standards for nanotechnologies. But I'll be reading the posts, just in case.


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