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Graphene versus Carbon Nanotubes for Electronics: A Short Update

 A little over a year ago I suggested that the upstart wonder material graphene was beginning to win greater favor among researchers over carbon nanotubes for application in electronics.

Since that time, it seems graphene research has been reaching a critical mass. A nice catalogue of what’s been happening with graphene research can be found here at

But I can’t help but shed a tear for the long-suffering carbon nanotube. And just in case, you think all research has been abandoned in the application of CNTs to electronics, here’s a bit of encouraging news. Although not quite reaching the level of perfecting sealing wax, with the growing interest in graphene it sometimes feels that way.

Never Look Down the Barrell of a Loaded Laser

Jeff Hecht, this week's guest blogger, is at the Solid State and Diode Laser Technology Review of the Directed Energy Professional Society in Newton, Massachusetts.

What does eye safety have to do with laser weapon? A lot if you're thinking seriously about actually deploying them for applications such as defense against rockets, artillery and mortars, as I describe in my feature in the July IEEE Spectrum.

Laser beams at visible or near-infrared wavelengths are hazardous because the eye focuses their parallel rays onto a tiny spot that can damage the retina, the eye's layer of light-sensing cells. The U.S. and most other countries now use lasers emitting at infrared wavelengths of 1.4 micrometers or longer in lasers that measure ranges to targets or designate targets for smart bombs because those wavelengths are blocked by the fluid inside the eyeball.

At the Directed Energy Professional Society meeting in Newton, Massachusetts on July 1, developers described strides toward high-energy versions of two types of fiber lasers with retina-safe output. The US Army Research Laboratory is developing erbium-doped fiber lasers emitting near 1.6 micrometers.  Northrop Grumman is developing thulium-doped fiber lasers emitting near 2 micrometers.

--Jeff Hecht
Newton, Mass

Curb Your Laser Enthusiasm

From the desk of guest blogger Jeff Hecht:

Are laser developers too enthusiastic for their own good? Top Pentagon officials think so, veteran laser researcher Martin Stickley of the University of Central Florida told the Directed Energy Professional Society meeting in Newton.

Before finishing a tour as a DARPA program manager two years ago, Stickley asked 10 senior Pentagon officials why high-energy lasers hadn't made it to the battlefield. "Lack of credibility" came near the top of his list of problems. "Laser zealots were at least an order of magnitude worse than the usual technology optimists," one official told Stickley, rating the exaggeration factor as 400 percent for lasers and 20 percent for other technologies.

Stickley spoke with authority--he's been around since the very early days of military laser research, and built the Air Force's first laser back in 1960, using Theodore Maiman's ruby-laser design. We've learned a lot about lasers since then, and today's plans for solid-state laser weapons described in my July feature sound more credible than those of decades ago -- but how will they sound in 2060?

(Note- Stickley is a consultant, listing his affiliation as CREOL, the College of Optics and Photonics at the University of Central Florida)


-- Jeff Hecht
   Newton, Mass.

Big Lasers Aren't Big Enough for Weapons

Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that funding for the Airborne Laser--a U.S. military effort begun in 1996 to create laser-based missile defense--was being chopped to bits in the new budget, essentially limiting it to a research effort. But contrary to popular belief, the program wasn't cut. Instead, as Aviation Week reported about two weeks ago, "the first of four congressional committees to weigh in on ABL's future has sided with the Obama administration’s ... 2010 request for $187 million" which is enough to maintain a decent research effort.

In the July issue of IEEE Spectrum, New Scientist Boston Correspondent and Laser Focus World contributing editor Jeff Hecht writes for us about the future of military lasers including ABL. It's a must-read, especially in light of the fact that new solid state technologies might make the entire ABL debate a moot point (it's a chemical laser, and as such it could already be outdated. And I probably don't need to mention that it is way, way over budget.).

This week, Hecht is at the Solid State and Diode Laser Technology Review of the Directed Energy Professional Society in Newton, Massachusetts. He'll be filing a series of dispatches this week, the first of which is right here.

My feature in the July issue of IEEE Spectrum describes dramatic progress in building solid-state lasers powerful enough to destroy military targets such as rockets, artillery, and missiles. But pressing system issues including damage to laser optics and cooling of the lasers have become an "elephant in the living room" for engineers trying to develop lasers that can be deployed on the battlefield, Sean Ross of the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico told the Solid State and Diode Laser Technology Review of the Directed Energy Professional Society on June 30.
Ross said that three unidentified demonstrations of multikilowatt laser systems have fallen behind schedule because the laser caused unexpected damage to the optics that focus and direct the beam. Cooling systems have caused other problems, including vibrations that shook vital laser components. Ross is spot-on in calling for serious attention to these unglamorous problems; unless they're solved, the lasers will stay in the labs.

-- Jeff Hecht, Newton, Mass., June 30


PHOTO CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

Uganda and Nanotechnology

I have to confess when I saw this headline Nanotechnology: How prepared is Uganda?, my initial thought was oh dear, another country trying to get into the nanotechnology initiative gambit to the detriment of the rest of its economy. This was going to provide me with another opportunity to hammer away at my pet peeve: the attempts by regions to become the Silicon Valley of nanotech.

But it turned out to be something else completely. The story details a bogus product that claims to have nanotech in it, which it doesn’t, and instead of engendering anger at this obvious fraud it gets health officials in Uganda concerned about nanotech in consumer products within their country.

It all harkens back to the ‘Magic Nano’ craze in which a bathroom cleaning product that was marketed as “nano” started to cause respiratory problems in its users. This caused many to start using it as an example of how dangerous nanotechnology is, until it started to become clear that the product didn’t really contain any nanoparticles.

But this Uganda incident is mind-boggling. You have some product being sold that is some kind of glass and purports to:

Enhance body mood and replenish water and other beverages with lost essential minerals. The glass is believed to have been developed at high altitude.

It costs between Shs500,000- 1,000,000. The glass, whose brand name is withheld, claims to make sick people get nutrients from its use. One pours water and drinks. It is also claimed that carrying it in one’s pocket makes them healthier.

Faced with this clear fraud, what are the government officials going on about: the unknown dangers of nanoparticles.

This example demonstrates at least one or both of the following two ideas. The NGOs out to put a moratorium on nanotech are succeeding rather well in so far as government officials in Third World are more concerned about unknown dangers of nanoparticles than they are fraud perpetrated upon their citizens. Or, the NGOs will succeed eventually in their goal as evidenced by the clear insanity of this bizarre reaction.


Solar Impulse Concept Plane Unveiled

Illustration credit: Solar Impulse  |  Artist's conception of the HB-SIA in flight

Today, Swiss engineers unveil the Solar Impulse HB-SIA prototype plane. As the name suggests, the plane is designed to fly solely on solar power, and its next trick will be a 36-hour test flight early next year. That’s one compete day and one complete night fueled only by rechargeable batteries and sunlight. Its successor is slated for a trans-Atlantic trip sometime in 2012. The final goal is a complete trip around the world.

The two men at the heart of the enterprise—mechanical engineer Andre Borschberg and CEO Bertrand Piccard, who was with the first group that circumnavigated the world in a balloon—have been working since 2003 to make this zero net energy concept vehicle.

Until now, the plane’s design was a closely guarded secret. The vast expanse of carbon composite and silicon has been under construction since 2007, hidden in a hangar on a ghost-town of a Swiss Air Force base in Dübendorf, about a 15-minute train ride north of Zürich.

I got a chance to take a very brief peek at it last summer when I was in town. Rachel Bros de Puechredon, the adorable blond Frenchwoman who is Solar Impulse’s sole press rep, charged ahead of me in sky-high, pointy-toed white stilettos and ordered me to leave my camera behind, and of course swore me to secrecy.

Super secret hangar

Photo credit: Sally Adee | The inside of the hangar, which was divided into two partitions; the first (shown) was where reporters were allowed. The second (semi-visible through far door) was where reporters were not allowed.

The Solar Impulse plane is one sleek monster. Its 61-meter wingspan is equal to that of an Airbus A340, one of the transatlantic behemoths that ferries passengers between London and New York (228 of them). Unfortunately for the solitary pilot of the HB-SIA, all that width is in the service of a tiny sarcophagus suspended from the middle of the mammoth wing.

The tiny cockpit holds the pilot, two batteries and the flight electronics and not an ounce more. It weighs just 1500 kilograms. Compare that to the A340, which weighs 260,000 kg without cargo.

Why the insane ratio of width to weight? It turns out that only these disproportionate dimensions will let the plane coast at the proper cruising speed, which is about 45 kilometers per hour. That’s slow enough for the motors to operate four propellers that can subsist on what's supplied by the solar panels encrusting every inch of the wings (at most 10 HP per motor).

These monocrystalline silicon solar cells convert about 20 percent of incoming solar energy into electricity. The cells, which are not the most state-of-the-art in terms of performance, were chosen more for their weight than their efficiency. The high-grade solar cells on satellites, for example, are made from compounds like gallium indium phosphide and gallium indium arsenide and would weigh down the delicate plane. The plane’s heaviest components are its four 100-kg lithium polymer batteries that store excess incoming power. The long wingspan means less power needs to be produced by the motors to keep the plane perfectly horizontal. It also means greater surface area to hold all 10,748 of those solar cells. (FYI, you can adopt one. I tend to hate cutesy marketing stuff like this, but I admit this one got me.)

The engineers solved the weight challenge, but in the process created another problem. The featherweight vehicle needs to be in complete control at all times; tilt the plane more than 5 degrees and the pilot will likely lose control. Even at the comparatively low altitude of 8500 meters (the max you can go without pressurizing the plane if you don’t want to pass out), this would be bad news for plane and pilot alike.

So it would take something like a trained fighter pilot to keep the massive plane within five degrees of horizontal for 36 hours solid.

As luck would have it, Borschberg was a fighter pilot with the Swiss Air Force. He likes to fly and he’s not afraid of a little risk, as evidenced by the grayish-green tint of Rachel’s face when she picks me up from the train station. On this unusually humid and sweltery day, Switzerland is in the throes of rainstorms extending from Zürich down to Lausanne, 200 km south and home to the research arm of the Solar Impulse enterprise. I’ve opted for the three-hour train ride. Rachel, on the other hand, left Lausanne in the early hours with Borschberg by helicopter. They got about halfway, tumbling around the opaque black sky, before Rachel, moments from vomiting, screamed at him to turn back. He pressed on just a little further (she tells me he’s masterful at pushing his luck just to the limit and not an inch further) before acquiescing, and turning back. They ended up driving.

Photo credit: Sally Adee  | Andre Borschberg in a mockup of the plane's cramped cockpit, training on a flight simulator.

But it’s not just cojones that will get Borschberg through 36 straight hours in the air. Research has shown that sleep deprivation, even just 24 hours, has the effect of a 0.10 blood alcohol level, illegal in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. But they also found that 20 minute-catnaps, spaced out properly, can stall these effects. That’s because a full complement of sleep includes 90-minute cycles of four stages of sleep, each more deep than the previous one, and finally REM sleep, in which the sleeper dreams. The average person has four or five of these 90 minute cycles per night. If you’ve ever been forcibly awakened 40 minutes into a night’s sleep you know how disoriented and groggy you feel. The magic bullet, research has shown, is the 20 minute nap—you’ve entered only the lightest stage of sleep, and on waking you feel completely alert. But how does the team make sure the far-away pilot never stays asleep for more than 20 minutes?

At the Lausanne campus of the Solar Impulse enterprise, they’ve cooked up a special shirt that will make sure he only sleeps in increments of 20 minutes.

You’ll have to read tomorrow’s post for the sexy details.

In the Commercialization of Nanotech It's Rarely about the Technology

 Back in March, the tech news sites were aflutter with news of “nanoball” batteries that can charge a phone in 10 seconds.

Now Spectrum has an article in which a number of scientists are disputing the performance claims made by the MIT researchers who developed the technology. In the article it appears that just lurking beneath the controversy are developing disputes about IP and patent infringement.

Earlier this year, and actually for some time, I have been expecting more news to be coming out on nanotech and batteries. We got a rash of stories and with them expectations of near-term commercialization of these technologies.

I have been recently harping about how research is coming out a dizzying pace over the last few years in nanotech, but there is a shocking lack of commercialization.

The kind of patent and IP hurdles faced above is one factor and others include the shrinking private funding of companies  and a comparatively well-organized group of environmental groups who feel as though they have stumbled upon genetically modified crops and asbestos all wrapped up into one with nanotech.

With these factors it's a wonder that any companies involved in commercializing nanotech make it. Even companies that just a few years ago were touted as a success story are now seemingly falling apart.

There's plenty of blame to go around in this, not the least of which would be some of the poor business practices of these struggling companies, but when lawyers, short-sighted and greedy investors, and rabid NGOs are out to see something fail, it's hard to see how it can possibly succeed.

Double Opt-In, Double Opt-Out?

 noun Etymology: Yiddish khutspe, from Late Hebrew _u_p_h Date: 1883 : supreme self-confidence : nerve, gall synonyms see temerity — Mirriam-Webster Online Dictionary

I'm ready to close the 2009 Chutzpah Contest, and it's not even July yet. Here's the putative winner:

Your e-mail address was supplied to us as having double-opted-in to mailings of this type, and having agreed to accept such mailings from third party partners. If you want to discontinue getting this, follow the unsubscribe instructions at either the top or bottom of this e-mail, and we will gladly remove you from this list. We send only this Daily Newsletter, which contains no advertising of any kind. We have no desire to send our Newsletter to anyone who does not want it. If you don't want it, please unsubscribe by clicking on the links above or at the bottom.

Let's look at that again. According to Opt-In News (is there an emoticon for the shock and awe on my face when I found there was a publication called Opt-In News?):

In a single opt-in, people submit an email address and ask (opt) for specific emails to be sent to them. The inherent issue with a single opt-in is that people might submit their name inadvertently, or someone may have submitted their name for them, against their wishes. Double opt-in is an enhanced permission that tackles these issues. With double opt-in, the submitted name is not immediately added to a mailing list. Instead, an email is sent to the address, asking to confirm that email address should indeed be added. If the recipient of the confirmation email does nothing, the submitted address is taken off of any mailings. The name is only added to a distribution list if the recipient responds to the confirmation email.

So in other words, my email address was bought from some listowner whose list I'm on because I double opted-in. It hardly needs saying that even if I triple opted in to one list, I may not want to be on some unrelated list. It definitely goes without saying that the phrase “mailings of this type” is meaningless. Any mailing can call itself a “newsletter,” for example, so since I subscribe to one newsletter, it's supposed to follow that I'll welcome every other newsletter in the world? Needless to say, the mailing list in question has an unsubscribe option. But let's look at it:

DO YOU NOT WANT TO BE REMOVED FROM THIS MAILING? TO UNSUBSCRIBE, send an e-mail to the following address: This will invoke an automated unsubscribe process, and you will receive one final e-mail confirming that you have in fact been unsubscribed.

Do you love the double-negative of “do you not want to be removed from this mailing?” as much as I do? It's purpose is just to confuse, and therefore discourage me from unsubscribing. But you have to love even more “This will invoke an automated unsubscribe process” - in fact, it evokes an email that makes you reconfirm your desire to unsubscribe to this list that you never subscribed to in the first place. In other words, there was no double-opt-in to the list, nor even a single-opt-in, but you have to double-opt-out. Ah, the sweet smell of success. J.J. Hunsecker would be proud.

How To Dispel the Hype Around Nanotech and Alternative Energy?

When oil prices were beginning to plummet from their highs of $150/bbl about this time last year and the stocks for alternative energy companies didn’t start to go down immediately with them, talk began that the economics of alternative energy solutions were beginning to dislodge themselves from the price of oil. That kind of talk was soon drowned out when the economic crisis really began to bloom in the Autumn of 2008.

While the enthusiasm for alternative energy stocks started to come down into the realm of reality, the hope that somehow nanotechnology was going to make solar power and fuel cells suddenly stand on their own two feet without subsidies and make economic sense when compared with fossil fuels continued on. It has proven much harder to dispel this notion, especially in the case of so-called “nano solar”.

I just helped complete an update to a report originally published two years ago on the impact nanotechnology will have on the energy market.

Two years ago, the report presented the somewhat unpopular idea at the time that nanotechnology’s role in improving energy conversion technologies like solar and fuel cells would have a minor economic impact. Instead energy saving would be a large impact area with better insulation, lighter materials and more efficient lighting. Another area that would be key would be energy storage through improved batteries.

But as the report discovered energy conversion just was not going to feel much of an impact from nanotechnology. And it seems that over the last two years the situation has gotten a little worse when it comes to fuel cells.

While it still appears that stationary fuel cells for providing power to office buildings still makes sense, it seems that with the Obama administration’s cutting of government funding for research of hydrogen fuel cells we may finally be moving away from the diversion that fuel cell powered automobiles are going to happen anytime soon, if at all.

Add on to that carbon nanotubes have not proven to be the effective hydrogen storage material many had hoped and the prospects for nanotechnology and hydrogen fuel cells have diminished somewhat over the last two years.

When it comes to nanotechnology and photovoltaics, specifically thin film solar systems, the last few years would be trying on the patience of just about any investor as manufacturing and reliability issues still remain a significant obstacle. The result is that in reality nano-enabled thin film solar will not have much discernible impact on the energy situation until at least 2015.

Now that the context for investment in alternative energy has become a little more rooted to the realities on the ground, it will be interesting to see if the expectations for nanotech in energy (in the near term) comes back down to earth as well.



Nanotechnology Goes Underground

It seems that concern is brewing that manufacturers may not publicize the use of nanomaterials in their products.

In the often misinformed exuberance of NGOs to rid the earth of evil nanomaterials produced by heartless, monolithic industry, it only makes sense that companies would start downplaying their use of the novel materials. In fact, I rather unimaginatively suggested this would happen here and here.

I wish I could say that these posts were prescient. No, they were just common sense. If one day sulfuric acid was proclaimed as the next wonder material of the world, as a nylon producer you might want to hype how it's used to make your products. But if you begin to see a rather healthy industry developing around the demonization of sulfuric acid, you might want to just talk about how your nylon is perfectly safe and not mention so much the toxic materials used to make it.

But we do love of our conspiracy theories, especially those that involve corporations trying to stick it John Q. Public. I rather enjoyed the one related here in which in 2007 there were 29 mentions of nanotechnology on a cosmetics website, but today zero. Ah's a brilliantly conceived plot, no doubt.

In the same article in which we get the conspiracy we are actually given another point of view (an increasingly rare occurrence) that it's all just a problem of semantics. If a size definition of nanotechnology could just be agreed upon, all the controversy would be settled.

"Varying definitions leads to claims that the industry is not open with information. But nobody is lying and nobody is misleading the public or authorities. Let's agree on what we're talking about and work together to inform consumers," said Steffi Freidrichs, director of the Nanotechnology Industries Association.

Yeah, it's just a difference between 300nm and 100nm. Problem solved. That's it. Then again, I'm not so sure those that are convinced that big, bad industry are compelled to poison us for the sake of profit are going to be so easily swayed by that argument.




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