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Low power is the new black

Today, Actel announced a new family of low-power FPGAs (PDF) whose power consumption bottoms out at 5 microwatts. Actel CEO John East told me that low power chips like these will let portable device designers add features while still keeping cost and battery life constant. Think ultrathin phones with Microsoft Exchange.

East proselytizes low-power wherever he goes. Not only are low-power chips one part of the solution to global climate change, but who doesn't want their laptop to have a longer battery life?

Actel is by no means alone in its focus on low-power. At February's International Solid State Circuits Conference, Intel released technical details for a new low-power processor code-named "Silverthorne" (a good name for a bodice ripper) which was just launched this month as "Atom" (not a good name for a bodice ripper). Intel launched the Atom processor specifically for mobile internet devices and computers that are designed specifically (and only) to surf the interwebs.

Actel's low-power FPGAs are part of a larger mission for East that includes re-engineering the country's relationship with nuclear energy and dominating the "Martian" chip market. I don't know if he's just really good at selling it, but he's definitely a great interview.

Out of Africa: the Riddle of Solar Electricity

One of the hottest new approaches to generating electricity today is "solar thermal," a form of capturing sunlight in order to convert water into steam, which in turn drives a conventional electricity-producing turbine. Solar thermal, as a concept, has been around since the 19th century, but in recent years the technology has undergone a revolution, helped by new designs and materials.

I visited last week with Ausra, one of the leaders in the solar thermal revival. Founded by an Australian inventor named David Mills, the company moved from Australia to Palo Alto, California a few years ago at the urging of legendary Silicon Valley financier Vinod Khosla who believed the company would thrive with more capital and the prospect of partnerships with American electric-utilities.

Khosla's vision seems to be coming true. Ausra specializes in providing large-systems to electricity grids and last year the company struck a deal to build a solar thermal plant for PG&E.

The PG&E plant remains years away from generating electricity but Ausra is already getting inquiries from all over the world. The key selling point: national electricity grids, suffering from shortages, can immediately benefit from solar thermal.

While India and China have the greatest needs for electricity going forward, sub-Saharan Africa is suffering from an unprecedented shortage, with South Africa -- the region's biggest economy -- suffering the most. Solar thermal as a technology would seem ideal for sub-Saharan Africa.

Indeed, Ausra is fielding requests from African governments and electricity companies -- and giving a stock answer, John O'Donnell, an executive vice president for the company, told me.

The answer to the Africans is "be patient."

"We're just saying we want to get proven in the U.S. before we take the next step," he says. "We donâ''t want to get overstretched."

For Africa, with its difficult business and geographic conditions, "you want well-proven systems," O'Donnell says.

"But once some of the technical risks are taken out and we're more experienced, solar thermal is clearly going to be part of the solution to Africa's electricity needs."

Ausra's approach -- providing electricity to a national grid -- runs counter to virtualy all of the current solar approaches in Africa, which is why solar thermal as a technology is worth watching closely. At present, solar in Africa is very small-scale and most often deployed at the level of villages (that are off the grid) or individual homes or buildings in cities (where excess electricity is not even fed back into the grid).

The trouble with these small solar systems is that they are costly, and especially so relative to the electricity generated.

O'Donnell describes proponents of small, off-grid solar in Africa as "romantic dreamers." He thinks the main show in solar should move away from simplistic notions about rural self-sufficiency and instead concentrate on helping to fill the growing demand in African cities for electricity.

Until now, solar in Africa has been dominated by romantics. O'Donnell predicts that will change. "Every African country is looking at solar thermal," he says. "The question is the maturity of the technology, over the next five years, we should begin to get the answers that Africans want to hear."

Reaping what you sow in Nanotech

The Foresight Institute in its blog is a bit disturbed by the promotional copy for a new Public Television series entitled â''Nanotechnology: The Power of Smallâ'' . To their view the ad copy seems to be focusing on the negative aspects of nanotechnology.

Indeed it does. What did you expect? Synthesis and clarity may be pleasing, but discord and controversy interest us. How else do you explain the popularity for so many years of the Jerry Springer show? Or the recent Point/Counterpoint on nanotechnology within the LA Times?

But what is truly so remarkable about the Foresight Instituteâ''s concern is that in at least a couple of the controversies they have contributed mightily to creating these perceptions. Namely that nanotechnology will play some part in compromising our privacy and that we can use nanotechnology to extend our life indefinitely (read "Transhumanists").

Both of these technological futures have found a voice through the Foresight Institute, so it seems ironic that they are concerned now that nanotechnology might be painted in a bad light because of them.

Outside of the molecular nanotechnology community there is hardly a word from any other quarters about how nanotechnology will makes us live forever or relegate us to living in a Big Brother society. In fact, with the latter it seems that IT and telecommunications have done a splendid job of taking our privacy away without any help from nanotechnology. So, now that you have created a controversy, where one did not exist previously, you complain that people are using it as marketing copy for a TV special? Odd.

It is likely that the NSF-funded TV series will do its best to hype the controversies surrounding nanotechnology, and then gently reassure you--to a point. A sign of the direction of the program comes from the fact that the Project on Emerging Technology, which has tried every angle to amplify the risks of nanotechnology, not the least of which is to promote its â''long listâ'' of products that employ nanotechnology (is 500 really that long a list?), will be presenting a premiere of the new program. Do you have any lingering doubts about what themes will be discussed? It will probably go something like this: with 500 consumer products on the market incorporating nanotechnology, do we have any idea what nanotechnology is or what it will do to us? Sigh...

While the Foresight Institute has kept a balanced view of the risks of nanotechnology when it comes to human health and the environment, they have helped to create the idea that somehow nanotechnology is going to impinge on our privacy and they have certainly been at the forefront of somehow using nanotechnology to extend our life indefinitely. Now they are reaping what they helped to sow.

We need a bill to ban importing other people's nuclear waste?

I've been half-following this story, and I can't tell if it's a tempest in a teapot, or the real thing. Today Tennessee Rep. Bart Gordon, the chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, introduced legislation to ban the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from allowing us to import foreign-generated nuclear waste.

â''No other country in the world is accepting nuclear waste from other countries,â'' said Gordon. â''By doing so, the United States is putting itself in position to become the worldâ''s nuclear dumping ground.â''

According to the terms of the bill, the president can grant specific exemptions if an application shows importing said waste would serve a national or international policy goal, such as a research purpose.

In February, Utah-based EnergySolutions applied for an NRC license to import 20,000 tons of low-level nuclear waste (that means no glowing rods) from decommissioned nuclear reactors in Italy. The waste would be ultimately disposed of at a site in Clive, Utah. â''The United States has only a finite amount of space available for disposal of nuclear waste,â'' said Gordon.

Vietnam Set to Launch First Satellite

Citing a need to upgrade its communications infrastructure, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam said today that it's ready to join the satellite club.

According to numerous sources (Associated Press, Reuters, and others), Vietnam has purchased a specially-built satellite from Lockheed Martin for US $200 million and will spend an unreported amount to launch it into orbit next month aboard an Ariane 5 rocket built by ArianeSpace SA, of Evry, France.

The satellite, known as VINASAT-I, has the transmission capacity to handle 10 000 voice/Internet/data channels or 120 television channels, according to the Vietnam Posts and Telecommunication Group (VNPT) and has an expected lifespan of 15 to 20 years.

A spokesperson for the state-sponsored group said the country will also build a pair of ground stations to work with VINASAT-I, in northern Ha Tay province and southern Binh Duong province. These will bring the total price tag of the project up to $300 million, a sum the Communist government hopes to recoup over the next decade.

"Vietnam has reached the point where significant improvements of the telecommunication infrastructure are needed for its economic and social development," VNPT Vice General Director Nguyen Ba Thuoc said at a press conference in Hanoi today.

He said that growth in the telecommunications sector in Vietnam has risen sharply in the last few years, with some 19 million people subscribed to Internet services and 30 million signed up for cell phones (out of a population of 85 million).

Up until now, Vietnam has been leasing satellite services from Australia, Thailand, and Russia at a cost of $15 million.

The 2.4 metric ton satellite is scheduled for launch April 12 from the Centre Spatial Guyanais, at Kourou, French Guiana (the same base that launched the European Space Agency's Jules Verne Automated Transfer Vehicle on Sunday).

"Vietnam will be more active to improve network capability and quality of telecommunication, IT, and communication services and to reduce the gap between cities and rural areas," added Thuoc.

He noted that the new satellite will meet public needs such as providing weather information and navigation guidelines to fishing ships and oil rigs, as well as offer remote health-care and education services to islands and remote areas.

The launch will make Vietnam the fifth Southeast Asian nation to operate its own satellite service, joining Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines, which all told employ 80 spacecraft in geostationary orbit.

Landmark Funding for Water Ship

Today, Houston-based Water Standard Company announced an unprecedented funding commitment from two New York-based investment funds, which were so impressed with the startup's plan that they invested $250 million: that's arguably the largest initial funding in the history of the water industry.

Water Standard's plan is to create a fleet of Seawater Desalination Vessels-- mobile, ship-based water treatment facilities that can churn out 300,000 cubic meters of drinking water per day. Water Standard CEO Amanda Brock explained to me how these ships could end the global water crisis.

It's a truism of the 21st century that water is the new oil. Global warming is already catalyzing droughts throughout China, Australia and now the Western United States (among many other places). At this point, El Paso, Texas gets 40% of its water from so-called "toilet-to-tap" wastewater recycling. Some municipalities are luckier. If you're on a shoreline, you have a limitless supply of ocean water to desalinate. But global warming is the gift that keeps on giving-- in addition to creating further droughts, experts also predict that the severity and number of hurricanes and typhoons will rise over the coming century. Such storms hit hardest on shores, and they have the capacity to knock a coastal desalination plant into the middle of next week.

Brock argues that her ships are a better bet for seawater treatment than conventional shore-based plants. Aside from their ability to get out of the path of a hurricane, the ships are also better at protecting the environment.

Evironmentalist don't much like the land-based facilities because their technology is hazardous to marine life. Those plants have to suck in seawater with so much force that they often trap fish and other marine life in the stream. Needless to say, the fish don't survive the process. But Water Standard says its water intake and discharge systems minimize the technology's impact on marine life.

The full story is at Spectrum Online.

â¿¿Nanotechnology Phoneâ¿¿ Now Has a Video

For those of you interested in the mobile phone this blog highlighted last month, and which may not be available for another seven years, you now have a video to while away the time until the phone hits the market.

Re-focusing Environmental and Health Concerns of Nanotechnology

The latest scare screed from an NGO on the subject of nanotechnology comes from the Australian-based Friends of the Earth in their latest report â''Out of the laboratory and on to our plates: Nanotechnology in food and agricultureâ''. The report comes replete with images of faceless scientists injecting some unknown chemical into some fruit.

As propaganda goes this is top-notch stuff. As far as keeping to facts, and avoiding misleading hype, it falls short. TNTLog does a thorough job of putting the report in its appropriate place.

But the environmental and health concerns surrounding nanotechnology need to be addressed, and none more acutely than the occupational safety and health issues for those workers involved in manufacturing processes that employ nanoparticles.

Nanowerk has written a spotlight piece on this issue that introduces a recent report and survey conducted by Kaspar Schmid and Michael Riediker from the Institute of Health Economics and Management at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland entitled â''Use of Nanoparticles in Swiss Industry: A Targeted Surveyâ''.

While the Friends of the Earth select out portions of the 2004 Royal Society Report to arrive at a conclusion that a moratorium is needed on nanotechnology (something that the Royal Society Report never does itself), the Royal Society Report does express keen concern about â''freeâ'' nanoparticles and the risk that they may hold for workers.

The recent Swiss report is not trying to create headline-grabbing fear mongering, but is in the silent pursuit of facts. And one of the key findings is fairly disturbing: that there are few, if any, best-practice regulations from either industry or government on how to handle nanoparticles.

If concerns about the environmental and health impact of nanoparticles are to be fruitfully pursued, then addressing occupational health and safety of so-called nanoworkers is a good place to start and one where the risk is probably the highest.

By engaging in scare tactics that require the dubious linking of nanotechnology to genetic engineering and synthetic biology, important nanotoxicological research into nanoparticles and the best-practice regulations that would follow are prevented from getting their proper place in the list of priorities.

Out of Africa: Gutenberg, birth certificates and the elusive hegemony of information technology

In Africa, the Gutenberg revolution remains unfinished. For many people, printed documents are a novel technology, yet to fully penetrate all levels of society.

The news this week that the southern African country of Malawi will requires its citizens to have birth certificates for the first time got me thinking about a complex problem in African development: â''information povertyâ'' and the way old technologies retain the power to shock, to paraphrase the title of a recent book by David Edgerton, a British historian of technology.

Edgerton argues persuasively in his 2007 book, â''The Shock of the Old,â'' that well-established technologies retain the power to â''shockâ'' in a surprisingly large number of circumstances.

In Africa, many mature technologies have not yet been mastered. Electricity is probably the best understood. The recent power shortages around Africa are illustration of that. But a 500-year old printing technology, which began to transform Europe more than 500 years ago, is only now doing the same in sub-Saharan Africa. Printed documents â'' and the personal information that drives the creation of them â'' are only now becoming mainstream in many countries in the region.

In rural Africa, birth certificates remain atypical, though partly because government officials charge too much for them. The charges are a form of extortion but also a symptom a mentality that treats printing as an exotic technology, a scarce resource, an alien instrument.

In Africa, as I once explored in a paper for the Web journal, First Monday, the whole notion of information as an instrument of power â'' as a technology in the truest sense of the word â'' is poorly developed. In short, the motivation to master printing technology -- and to value printed documents -- is lacking because of an "information poor" environment.

In African cities, many -- dare I say most -- streets have no names. Home delivery of mail is virtually non-existent. Documentation of a person's identity is often non-existent.

The costs of "information poverty" are manifold. Governments in Africa can't deliver certain services because it is often impossible to prove who received them.

In the case, of children, the failure of most families to secure birth certificates creates the potential for mayhem. Who does a child belong to? The question can be impossible to answer without printed documents.

In Chad, another African country, a French non-profit recently caused an uproar by taking 103 local children -- presumed to have no parents -- and giving them to families in France. Even when the Chadian and French governments intervened to block the flawed adoptions -- because the children actually had parents -- figuring out who the kids actually belonged to wasn't easy -- because of a lack of documentation.

Printed documents are taken for granted industrialized societies. The people in these societies invest heavily in combating the problem of "information overload." Managin vast amounts of information is among the most lucrative pursuits by contemporary innovators: witness the great commercial success of Google.

Yet in Africa, "information poverty" remains a curious scourge.

Long live the printing press!

Two Spacecraft Prepare for Space Station Meetings

That's one up and one to go.

As NASA prepared for an early morning Tuesday flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, the European Space Agency (ESA) monitored the status of the latest cargo ship to fly into orbit on a mission to the International Space Station (or ISS).

On Sunday, the new Jules Verne Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) climbed into orbit atop a special Ariane 5 rocket from its launch pad at the ESA spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana. The first in its class, the unmanned Jules Verne is Europe's alternative to the U.S. space shuttle fleet. It weighs nearly 18 metric tons and is equipped with electronics that automate its flight once in space. Its maiden mission is to prove its abilities by carrying a 4.5-ton cargo of parts, propellant, water, and oxygen to the ISS. Initially, it will linger in low Earth orbit at an altitude of 260 kilometers.

Three weeks from now, mission controllers will instruct its computers to begin an ascent that will put it into a path that will rendezvous with the space station, orbiting 85 km higher. The delay in its journey has been planned to allow the Endeavour to safely come and go to the ISS in the meantime.

In that regard, NASA said today it is making final preparations for the launch of Endeavour in the wee hours of Tuesday morning.

This flight, known as STS-123, will carry the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Kibo Laboratory and the Canadian Space Agency's two-armed robotic system, known as Dextre, to the ISS. The 1500 kilogram robot will be assembled in space by American astronauts.

The 16-day mission will be helmed by Dominic Gorie with Gregory H. Johnson serving as pilot. The crew will include Mission Specialists Rick Linnehan, Robert L. Behnken, Mike Foreman, Garrett Reisman, and Japanese astronaut Takao Doi.

The cause for the overlap in the two missions arose from problems NASA experienced last December with internal sensors in the external fuel tank of the previous shuttle mission, the STS-122 flight of Atlantis (please see our previous entry "NASA Sets New Dates for Next Shuttle Launches" for more detail).

NASA and ESA hope this odd combination of missions will catch up their joint timelines for bringing the space station back to its construction schedule.


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