Tech Talk iconTech Talk

France Secures Britainâ¿¿s Nuclear Industry

This morning, Sept. 24, British Energy formally accepted a take-over bid by Electricité de France, which means that France will soon own and operate the bulk of the UKâ''s nuclear power generating industry. Itâ''s a measure of how far the processes of electricity deregulation, globalization, and Europeanization have gone that the story gets only secondary treatment in todayâ''s French press. It didnâ''t even make Le Mondeâ''s online homepage, while on Le Figaroâ''s it ranked 14th, putting it well â''below the fold.â''

Todayâ''s deal puts EDF in charge of almost all of the UKâ''s nuclear power plants and gives it control of most attractive sites for building new ones. This is important because the British government advocates an aggressive program of nuclear expansion, and wants to have at least four new plants in operation by 2017.

Unlike the late President Gerald Ford, to recall Lyndon Johnsonâ''s denigrating joke, EDF showed this week that it can walk and chew gum at the same time. On Friday it made a last-ditch attempt to boost its stake in Constellation Energy, which it hoped to make its bridgehead for entry into the U.S. nuclear construction industry. But Constellation still preferred to stick with Warren Buffett, who has promised the company a $1 billion cash injection.

In these troubled economic times, evidently, having Buffettâ''s confidence means more than the worldâ''s best engineering expertise.

Textbooks: The New Digital File Sharing Frontier

The music industry, which for years has been complaining about unauthorized copying and distribution of their intellectual property, now has company. Sharing their piracy misery are textbook publishers. An increasing number of book titles are showing up on peer-to-peer file sharing sites, as students, with Napster as a historical blueprint, copy then digitize hundreds of pages in order to make them available over the Web for free.

What would motivate a college kid to stand at a photocopier for hours? Revenge. Many students feel that they're being fleeced by publishers who, aided and abetted by professors, force new and ever more expensive editions of texts on young people already hard hit by dramatic tuition increases. Students argue that there is no reason, besides greed, for a book seller to introduce new versions of, say, a chemistry or calculus text in successive years. After all, they point out, the basic theorems and physical laws haven't changed since last September.

The reissues are an effective countermeasure against the bane of publishers' existence: the used book market where students can get a textâ''with the possible added bonus of passages highlighted by a student from an earlier semesterâ''for as little as half of the publisher's suggested retail price. In some cases, we're talking about a $100 difference.

Is this form of textbook sharing illegal? Yes. But the publishers, like the major record labels, asked for it. They made buying the materials essential to participation in a college course a zero-sum game. Either the publisher sees a windfall when a student is forced to buy a $200 book that contains the same information as the $50 version that his or her professor has now decided is a poor companion to the class lectures, or it makes no profit at all when that same $50 book is recycled each semester.

Think back for a second. I know I'm not the only person who once bought vinyl records and was continually amazed at how record labels would shamelessly package dreck with the great songs that motivated music fans to buy albums. Digital file sharing changed the game seemingly overnight, ushering in the current a la carte scheme that allows me to buy the three or four songs I like for a buck each. But before the music labels got religion, they had to have their pockets picked by pirates. This same scenario may be playing out again, with file sharing turning publishing on its ear.

The expanding use of bit torrent sites as giant book swaps has the publishers clawing for a way to prevent purchasers from sharing. They've hired teams of lawyers who have sent hundreds of legal notices to Web sites hosting pirated files demanding that the material be removed. But the publishing houses' proposed magic bullet is selling the texts as e-books, with digital rights management in place. Thought e-books would be significantly cheaper than their physical analogs, a student would have access only for the semester and, I guess, be limited in terms of how he or she could access the material. This, the publishers think, will help them to eliminate the used book market and illegal downloads.

Good luck with that, I say. By digitizing the books, they are eliminating the drudgery that is now the main limiting factor in online textbook trading. They are betting that they will be able to keep the files under tight control. But how successful will they be? To quote from the movie Jurassic Park, "Nature always finds a way." And the nature of young people faced with a problem created by what they perceive to be an unreasonable authority figure is to devise an ingenious solution or a brilliant workaround.

Saudi university builds top-notch supercomputer

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or KAUST, is building what it says will be the highest-performance computing system in the Middle East. Named Shaheen, the machine will be used by the universityâ''s faculty and its international cadre of sponsored researchers. Very well and good. Except that the university doesnâ''t really exist yet.

Next September, the graduate-level school will open its doors â'' by which time it presumably will have doors â'' to faculty and students. Backed by Saudi Aramco, the school's aim is to improve the quality of the country's scientific and technological expertise. To that end, Shaheen will be Saudi Arabiaâ''s first supercomputer dedicated to academic research, though the need to model oil and gas reserves has pulled in high-performance computing experts for years. â''In Saudi, typically someone brings in a machine and the application is always relevant to oil and gas,â'' says Majid Al-Ghaslan, KAUSTâ''s interim chief information officer, who led the hunt for the supercomputer.

For now, though, KAUST isnâ''t much more than a construction site on the Red Sea, so the machine will initially reside at IBMâ''s Watson Research Center, in Yorktown, New York.

Shaheen, which is the Arabic word for peregrine falcon, will be a 16-rack Blue Gene/P system made up of 65,536 independent processing cores. It will be capable of 222 teraflop/s, or 222 trillion floating operations per second. â''No oneâ''s ever tried to bring up this much capacity while building the facility at the same time,â'' Al-Ghaslan says. The university says its performance will fall in the top 10 of supercomputers in the world. Within two years, KAUST expects to scale the machine up to a petaflop of computing capability.

This past June, the latest Top500 supercomputer rankings registered a new record with Los Alamos National Laboratoryâ''s RoadRunner, the first general-purpose supercomputer known to have a peak performance of more than one petaflop/s, or one quadrillion floating-point operations per second.

Cleaning up the largest oil spill in the United States



Earth magazine has a riveting account of the history of the largest oil spill in the U.S., and the cleanup technologies being developed to deal with it. And that oil spill is not where you think it is, unless you're thinking Brooklyn, New York. "The plume â'' a toxic concoction of kerosene, fuel oil, gasoline and naptha (a key ingredient in napalm) â'' floats at the top of a subterranean aquifer beneath the working-class community of Greenpoint in Brooklyn."

Experts say between 17 and 30 million gallons of oil have been accumulating there since the mid-1800s. Oil companies started the cleanup about 30 years ago, but only 9.5 million gallons of oil have been recovered. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, finishing the job could take another 25 years.

To get the oil out of the ground, ExxonMobil siphons it from the water table using a system similar to skimming fat off the top of a pot of chicken soup (delicious!). So far, the company has pulled about 6 million gallons of oil out of the ground.

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.


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