Tech Talk iconTech Talk

U.S. and Russia Agree to Continue Arms Reduction Efforts

As expected, the leaders of the two nuclear superpowers agreed today to mutually extend efforts to reduce their nation's atomic weapons stockpiles.

Visiting Moscow for the first time as commander-in-chief, U.S. President Barack Obama spared little time in tackling the top foreign affairs issue traditionally assigned to American leaders in the modern era. At their first meeting in London in April, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pledged to renew discussions on efforts to develop a new bilateral pact on nuclear weapons to replace the decades-old Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires this December (see U.S. and Russian Leaders Vow to Renew Nuke Reduction Efforts in this space).

At the time, the two presidents said they would assign their arms experts to begin negotiations on a framework aimed at overhauling START's protocols by July. Today's agreement formalizes that initiative by pledging the parties to "begin work on a new, comprehensive, legally binding agreement" that would reduce each side's strategic warheads to a "range of 1500-1675" devices apiece.

In a joint statement, the two leaders said their government's "plan to continue the discussion concerning the establishment of cooperation in responding to the challenge of ballistic missile proliferation."

"We have instructed our experts to work together to analyze the ballistic missile challenges of the 21st century and to prepare appropriate recommendations, giving priority to the use of political and diplomatic methods. At the same time, they plan to conduct a joint review of the entire spectrum of means at our disposal that allow us to cooperate on monitoring the development of missile programs around the world. Our experts are intensifying dialogue on establishing the Joint Data Exchange Center, which is to become the basis for a multilateral missile-launch notification regime."

The statement also included a call for the other nuclear-armed nations to join the original members of the atomic weapons club "to engage in equitable and mutually beneficial cooperation" on reducing arsenals the world over and "to refrain from steps that could lead to missile proliferation and undermine regional and global stability."

Further details of today's accord were outlined in separate documents published by both sides and in a public press conference. Please see:

"President Medvedev and I are committed to leaving behind the suspicion and the rivalry of the past so that we can advance the interests that we hold in common," Obama told media gathered at the Kremlin. "Today, we've made meaningful progress in demonstrating through deeds and words what a more constructive U.S.-Russian relationship can look like in the 21st century."

Tesla Motors Sedan Readied for European Roads

The revolutionary line of electric vehicles from Tesla Motors will now include a right-hand drive version that drivers in the U.K. and other nations who drive in the left lane can enjoy.

The all-electric Tesla Model S, scheduled for availability in 2012, has a range of up to 300 miles without recharge and pickup that can take you from 0-60 mph in 5.6 seconds, according to the manufacturer. And when it comes time to power it up again, the stylish sedan can be recharged in 45 minutes from an electrical outlet using its QuickCharge feature.

At a modest price of US $49 900 (after a tax credit), the Model S seats five adults and two children, with a 17-inch touchscreen entertainment display for passengers.

To get the show on the road more quickly, the U.S. Department of Energy recently approved $465 million in low-interest loans to Tesla Motors to accelerate the production of its affordable electric vehicles. The company, based in San Carlos, Calif., said it will use $365 million of the funding for engineering and assembly of the Model S, according to a prepared statement.

The founder of the company Elon Musk (featured several times in these pages) said in late June that his firm will use the loan money "precisely the way that Congress intended," as a source of venture capital to build sustainable transport.

Now comes word that the new Tesla sedan will not be limited to the streets of America. The Australian website PCAuthority reports that the sedan version will soon include a right-hand drive configuration. The report notes that the Model S will still have to overcome the challenge of needing convenient recharging facilities while away from home to keep it juiced up, as well as a hefty price tag to replace its hefty battery (which has a life expectancy of some 180 000 miles of road use presently).

Still, it's an exciting prospect for motorists the world over, no matter which side of road they drive on.

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff in Nanotechnology Research Data

Researchers at Georgia Tech have developed a statistical analysis technique that will enable researchers to better distinguish between unwanted equipment-based artifacts in nanoscale measurements and true nanoscale phenomenon.

As I pointed out last month, it’s a hard and time-consuming process to design a nanomaterial. But this new statistical analysis technique is supposed to shorten the process by reducing the amount of experimental data required in order to reach a conclusion.

While huge transformational developments that may or may not happen capture the imagination of both the mainstream and industry press, it is the incremental improvements like this that lead to significant changes in the long run.


New DARPA Chief Named

Regina DuganCourtesy of Danger Room:

Mechanical engineer and defense entrepreneur Regina Dugan has been named the new director of Darpa, the Pentagon’s premiere research arm.

Previous director Tony Tether was relieved of the post in February, after serving the longest-ever term as DARPA director. Dugan will have some big shoes to fill. Tether presided over the DARPA Grand Challenge and an enormous jump in prosthetics technology, among many other groundbreaking research projects.

But Dugan is no slouch. She has a PhD from the California Institute of Technology, and did a 4-year stint as program manager at DARPA’s Defense Science Office (which is like DARPA's DARPA, the nexus of the truly eyebrow-raising research) from 1996 to 2000. Her research there included robot swarms. In 2001, according to Danger Room, she formed RedX, "a company that builds security gear, including an explosives detector which relies on fluorescent ink."

The full scoop is at Danger Room, which was also the first to speculate that she would be the top pick for the post. 


PHOTO CREDIT: Dugan Ventures

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.


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