12.07 - 01.08    

home |
About |
Contact Us |
Editorial Info |

   feature    columns

12.07 - 01.08

Washington Technology Digest

Compiled By IEEE-USA Staff

The following is a recap of new and notable developments in electrical engineering and computer or information technology emerging from the federal government and its research partners in November and late October.


A survey encompassing 363 leading U.S. nanotechnology scientists and engineers and representative sampling of American households suggests that those working in this emerging field of technology are more concerned about its health and environmental impacts than the public at large. The findings stand in contrast to other technologies such as nuclear power and genetically modified foods, where public perception of risks were much higher than those of scientists and engineers. The difference in perception was attributed to the relative newness of nanotechnology and the fact that nanotechnology and its health or environmental implications have received little media attention to date.

The survey indicated that the public’s primary concern with emerging nanotechnologies is the loss of privacy and the potential for loss of U.S. jobs. By contrast, 20 percent of scientists were concerned with nanotechnology-related pollution and 30 percent were apprehensive of potential health risks.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation as part of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University and the UW-Madison Graduate School.

For more information, see: www.news.wisc.edu/14483

In related news, on 8 Nov. 2007, the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy released a set of principles for nanotechnology environmental, health and safety oversight by federal departments and agencies.

See principles at: www.ostp.gov/html/Nano%20EHS%20Principles%20Memo_OSTP-CEQ_FINAL.pdf


A team of Brown University physicists funded by the National Science Foundation have reported research indicating that the same pairs of electrons that form in superconductors can also form in their opposite – electrical insulators.

“Our finding is quite counterintuitive,” said James Valles, a Brown professor of physics who led the research. “Cooper pairing is not only responsible for conducting electricity with zero resistance, but it can also be responsible for blocking the flow of electricity altogether.”

Although present in both superconductors and insulators, researchers believe that the Cooper Pairs behave differently in each instance. In superconductors, pairs link up and move in a linear way to create a continuous stream of electric current. But in the insulating film, the pairs spin solo like couples twirling on a ballroom dance floor.

The findings are expected to help researchers understand the limits of superconductivity and could lead to insulated wires that conduct electricity without heating up.

For more information, see: www.brown.edu/Administration/News_Bureau/2007-08/07-067.html


U.S. institutions awarded a record number of science and engineering (S&E) doctorates in the academic year ending in June 2006, charting their fourth consecutive annual increase and a 6.7 percent increase over 2005.

According to the NSF’s Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), U.S. institutions awarded 29,854 S&E doctorates with biological sciences, computer sciences, mathematics, chemistry, social sciences and engineering reaching all time highs. In Computer Science, the number of doctoral awards rose from its previous high of 1,130 in 2005 to 1,452 in 2006. Electrical engineering doctorate awards rose from 1,851 in 2005 to 2,133 in 2006. In 2006, 890 of the Computer Science doctorates and 1,563 of the electrical engineering doctorates were awarded to non-U.S. citizens.

From 1997 to 2006, awards of all S&E doctorates grew by 9.6 percent, with increases concentrated in the last four years. During the same 10-year period, doctorates awarded in all fields grew by 7.2 percent. But awards in non-S&E fields remained relatively level; thus, increases in S&E fields account for most of the growth in doctorates awarded.

In 2006, 15,947 doctorates were awarded to non-U.S. citizens, including 1,829 individuals who were permanent residents and 14,118 who were in the United States on a temporary visa. Awards to non-U.S. citizens constituted 45.2 percent of awards to those in S&E fields who reported citizenship status.

"While the overall number of S&E doctorates is going up, the rate of increase in doctorate awards in the last 5 years is higher for non-U.S. citizens than for U.S. citizens, 44.1 percent vs. 7.6 percent," said Jaqui Falkenheim, SED project manager at NSF.

The survey was sponsored by six federal agencies: NSF, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Additional data for all fields of study will be available in the interagency report Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: Summary Report 2006 at www.norc.uchicago.edu/issues/docdata.htm. The full set of detailed tables about S&E doctorates from this survey will be available in the report Science and Engineering Doctorate Awards: 2006 at www.nsf.gov/statistics/doctorates/


In late October, the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) announced the appointment of Dr. Christopher L. Greer as Director of the National Coordination Office (NCO) for Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD), the office that coordinates interagency planning, budget and assessment activities for the $3+ billion Federal Networking and Information Technology Research and Development program. As director of the this office, Dr. Greer also serves as co-chair of the National Science and Technology Council’s Subcommittee on Networking and Information Technology Research and Development.

Dr. Greer succeeds Dr. Charles H. Romine, who served as National Coordination Office Acting Director since February 2007. Dr. Greer had previously served at the National Science Foundation (NSF) as Program Director for the Office of Cyber Infrastructure and was responsible for strategic planning for digital data activities. A Ph.D. biochemist, Dr. Greer was a member of the faculty at the University of California at Irvine before coming to NSF.


In October, Joshua Fairley, an electrical engineer and program manager for the near-surface phenomenology program at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) in Vicksburg, Miss., received the Department of Defense’s prestigious David O. Cooke Excellence in Public Administration award for his work in Countermine Phenomenology, Joint Antiterrorism/Force Protection and Antiterrorist Barrier programs.

Fairley was recognized for developing an automated target recognition algorithm and method for detecting improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which improved the accuracy of electro-optical and infrared detection sensor systems by 75 percent, with fewer false alarms. Fairley also developed software systems and a testing apparatus for an antiterrorist barrier system, which is now in use by both military and civilian communities.

See ERDC press release at: www.erdc.usace.army.mil/pls/erdcpub/WWW_WELCOME.navigation_page?tmp_next_page=3778443


A robotized, self-driving 2007 Chevy Tahoe called Boss made history by driving swiftly and safely while sharing the road with human drivers and other robots. The feat earned Carnegie Mellon University's Tartan Racing first place in the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s (DARPA) Urban Challenge.

DARPA officials declared Boss the winner of the 3 Nov. event, which pitted 11 autonomous vehicles against each other on a course of suburban/urban roadways. After reviewing judges' scorecards overnight, DARPA officials concluded that Boss followed California driving laws as it navigated the course and that it operated in a safe and stable manner.

According to DARPA Director Tony Tether, many of the robots made good decisions. That meant speed became the determining factor, Tether said, and Boss was the fastest of the competitors by a large margin. Boss averaged about 14 miles an hour over approximately 55 miles, finishing the course about 20 minutes ahead of the second-place finisher, Stanford.

For more information, see CMU’s press release at: www.cmu.edu/homepage/practical/2007/fall/victory.shtml and the DARPA Urban Challenge highlights at: www.darpa.mil/grandchallenge/index.asp


Engineers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed and tested a laser-based ranging system to assess the performance of automobile collision warning systems. Researchers in industry and at the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) will be able to use the NIST technology to accelerate the development and commercialization of safety systems that alert drivers to multiple, and sometimes virtually simultaneous potential crash hazards—both from forward or side collisions as well as from running off the road. DOT believes that such warning systems could reduce substantially the number and severity of injuries to motorists and save lives.

To evaluate the performance of crash warning systems, which generally use radar, researchers needed an accurate measurement tool based on entirely different principles. NIST researchers developed an independent measurement system (IMS) consisting of a camera and microphone in the cab to detect the driver warning, a suite of calibrated cameras to measure the distance to lane boundaries and laser scanners to measure the distance to obstacles forward and to the side of the vehicle. The system can be mounted on cars or trucks with trailers and requires no modifications or connections to the warning system being tested. The NIST system can detect an object to within about eight-tenths of a meter, from up to 60 meters away, at speeds up to 25 m/s (within 33 inches, at a distance of 197 feet, and at speeds up to 56 mph).

The Department of Transportation is currently analyzing the test data. If the results pass DOT muster, the next step calls for a DOT/auto industry partnership to equip approximately 20 automobiles and 10 trucks with the warning systems. Volunteer motorists and truckers would be asked to use vehicles on the highway for a month.
For further information, see www.its.dot.gov/ivbss or “Objective Test Scenarios for Integrated Vehicle-based Safety Systems” by John J. Ference, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; Sandor Szabo, NIST; and Wassim G. Najm, Volpe National Transportation System Center (http://www.nist.gov/cgi-bin/exit_nist.cgi?url=http://www.itsdocs.fhwa.dot.gov/IJPODOCS/REPTS_TE/13759.pdf)


Researchers at the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) and the University of Colorado at Boulder have developed a unique way of growing hexagonal gallium nitride (GaN) nanowires featuring low-defect density and high-luminescence intensity. The resulting nanowires have a mechanical “quality factor” at least 10 times higher than reported values for other nanoscale devices such as carbon nanotubes, and comparable to that of commercial quartz crystals. Because a high Q factor indicates a capacity for stable vibrations, the nanowires might be used as oscillators in nano-electromechanical systems for future nano-sensors and communications devices.

The results are highlighted in S.M. Tanner, J.M. Gray, C.T. Rogers, K.A. Bertness and N.A. Sanford. 2007. High-Q GaN Nanowire Resonators and Oscillators. Applied Physics Letters. 91, 203117 (2007).

Read the news release at: www.nist.gov/public_affairs/techbeat/tb2007_1127.htm#nanowires


Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have demonstrated a mechanical fatigue process that eventually leads to cracks and breakdown in bulk silicon crystals. Their results have important implications for the design of new silicon-based micro-electromechanical system (MEMS) devices that have been proposed for a wide variety of uses.

Silicon — the backbone of the semiconductor industry — is one the world’s most heavily studied materials, and it has long been believed to be immune to fatigue from cyclic stresses because of the nature of its crystal structure and chemical bonds. And indeed, conventional tests have validated this. Recent research into silicon MEMS devices, however, has revealed that these microscopic systems that incorporate tiny gears, vibrating reeds and other mechanical features do seem to develop stress-induced cracks that can lead to failure. Why this happens at the microscopic scale is a matter of debate. One school of thought holds that the effect is purely mechanical, due to friction, and the other argues that it essentially is caused by corrosion—a chemical effect. Because the effect has only been noticed at submicrometer scales, it has been difficult to determine which theory is correct. The NIST team, which includes a researcher from the University of Extremadura in Spain, theorizes that the critical element in their experiments is the addition of shear stress (causing the crystal planes to slide against each other), a component missing in conventional tensile strength tests but not uncommon in real-world applications.

The research results are highlighted in S. Bhowmick, J.J. Meléndez-Martínez and B.R. Lawn. Bulk silicon is susceptible to fatigue. Applied Physics Letters 91, 201902. Published online 13 November 2007.

Read the news release at: www.nist.gov/public_affairs/techbeat/tb2007_1127.htm#silicon


A new aeronautics competition encourages high school and college students to share their ideas of future aircraft with NASA for a chance to receive trophies, student internship offers and cash prizes.

The Fundamental Aeronautics Program of the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate recently announced this new competition for the 2007-2008 academic year. The competition challenges students to write about the next generation of aircraft, what they would look like, and how they would operate.

For the competition, high school students will write a research paper that explains ideas for a future aircraft that could revolutionize passenger and cargo travel in the year 2058. Papers should include sections on fuel, environmental effects, noise levels, runway length and conditions, operating costs, passenger and cargo loads, and service operations. Entries will be judged on how well students focus their essays and meet four basic criteria: informed content, creativity and imagination, organization, and writing. Subject to availability of funds, team entries can win cash awards up to $1,500 and individual entries up to $1,000.

College students are challenged to write about their designs for the next generation of 21st-century aircraft. Design considerations include reduced environmental impact, reduced noise, daily operations on short runways, cost analysis for production and operation, passenger and cargo limits, structure and materials, and engines. Students should also briefly describe three valid scenarios for potential use of this vehicle in the year 2058. Each college entry is limited to 25 pages and must be sponsored by a supervising or advising faculty member. Winning entries may be invited to a student forum sponsored by NASA and/or industry, receive offers of student internships, and receive other prizes, including up to $5,000 cash, depending on available funds.

For more information, including eligibility requirements and judging criteria, visit: http://aero.larc.nasa.gov/competitions.htm.


On 28 Nov., U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) officials publicly commended Dominion North Anna, LLC (Dominion) for submission of a combined Construction and Operating License (COL) application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for construction of a new nuclear power plant in the United States. Dominion’s application seeks approval to build and operate a General Electric-Hitachi Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR) at its North Anna site near Mineral, Virginia, and will serve as the reference application for future utilities applying to construct an ESBWR. After nearly a 30-year period without any applications submitted to the NRC, the Dominion North Anna application marks the third complete construction application to build a new nuclear reactor received in just three months.

See DOE press release at: http://www.doe.gov/news/5749.htm

Earlier, in October, DOE commended the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the NuStart Energy Development consortium (NuStart) for submission of its combined Construction and Operating License (COL) application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). This application marks the second to the NRC in nearly 30 years to build a new nuclear reactor. Specifically, TVA’s application seeks approval to build and operate two Westinghouse AP1000 advanced commercial nuclear reactors at its Bellefonte site near Hollywood, Alabama, and will serve as the reference application for future utilities applying for an AP1000 COL.

See DOE press release at:www.doe.gov/sciencetech/5674.htm

In related news, in early November, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) announced that it is leading a $3 million research project that will pair two of the world's most powerful supercomputers to boost the safety and reliability of next-generation nuclear power reactors. The three-year project, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, will call upon a diverse team of researchers and institutions to create highly detailed computer models of a new proposed type of nuclear reactor.

See press release at: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-11/rpi-ust110107.php

The Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) is also using supercomputers to expand their nuclear energy research into new territory. With the recent arrival of the new IBM Blue Gene/P and the lab's development of advanced computer models, Argonne is researching the potential to repeatedly burn nuclear fuel that now sits as waste, thus closing the nuclear fuel cycle and reducing the risk of nuclear proliferation.

See ANL press release at: www.anl.gov/Media_Center/News/2007/news071127.html


On 8 Nov., the Department of Energy (DOE) announced that it will invest $21.7 million in next-generation photovoltaic (PV) technology to help accelerate the widespread use of advanced solar power. The 25 projects that DOE selected are an integral part of the President’s Solar America Initiative, which aims to make solar energy cost-competitive with conventional sources of electricity by 2015. The projects will be implemented at 15 universities and 6 companies; each award averages $900,000 from DOE over three years (Fiscal Years 2008 – 2010). DOE will provide up to $21.7 million in funding, subject to final project negotiations and congressional appropriations. With cost-sharing, the total investment in research will be up to $30.3 million.

For more information, see: www.doe.gov/news/5690.htm

The announcement follows news in late October of groundbreaking for a highly efficient and “green” Research Support Facility (RSF) and related renewable power projects at the Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). NREL’s new Research Support Facility promises to be one of the most “green” buildings ever constructed; a new Renewable Fuel Heating Plant will use biomass to cut NREL’s future natural gas use by 75 percent; and the Mesa Top PV Project – a new five-acre photovoltaic array, and one of the largest solar power systems in Colorado – will help power the lab’s main campus.

NREL’s Renewable Fuel Heating Plant will provide heat to the RSF and other research buildings on the Laboratory’s South Table Mountain campus by using biomass such as wood chips from forest thinning along Colorado’s Front Range. The Mesa Top PV Project will be located near the NREL Solar Radiation Research Laboratory, and will produce an estimated 750kW of clean, renewable electric power from solar energy that will be used on site. This five-acre span of solar panels is expected to be completed in May 2008, and will provide 7 percent of NREL’s electricity needs.

See DOE press release at: www.doe.gov/news/5671.htm


Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, along with collaborators in Turkey and Japan, have created a compact device that could lead to portable, battery-operated sources of T-rays, or terahertz radiation. By doing so, the researchers, led by Ulrich Welp of Argonne's Materials Science Division, have successfully bridged the "terahertz gap" – scientists' name for the range of frequencies between microwaves (on the lower side) and infrared (on the higher side) of the electromagnetic spectrum.

While scientists and engineers have produced microwave radiation using conventional electric circuits for more than 50 years, Welp said, terahertz radiation could not be generated that way because of the physical limitations of the semiconducting circuit components.

Unlike far more energetic X-rays, T-rays do not have sufficient energy to "ionize" an atom by knocking loose one of its electrons. This ionization causes the cellular damage that can lead to radiation sickness or cancer. Since T-rays are non-ionizing radiation, like radio waves or visible light, people exposed to terahertz radiation will suffer no ill effects. Furthermore, although terahertz radiation does not penetrate through metals and water, it does penetrate through many common materials, such as leather, fabric, cardboard and paper.

These qualities make terahertz devices one of the most promising new technologies for airport and national security. Unlike today's metal or X-ray detectors, which can identify only a few obviously dangerous materials, checkpoints that look instead at T-ray absorption patterns could not only detect but also identify a much wider variety of hazardous or illegal substances.

T-rays can also penetrate the human body by almost half a centimeter, and they have already begun to enable doctors to better detect and treat certain types of cancers, especially those of the skin and breast, Welp said. Dentists could also use T-rays to image their patients' teeth.

For more information, see www.anl.gov/Media_Center/News/2007/MSD071123.html. The research results are also reported in "Emission of Coherent THz Radiation from Superconductors," which appears in the 23 November issue of Science.


Scientists at the University of Virginia have discovered a new class of hydrogen storage materials for use in high-performance hydrogen fuel cells that could make the storage and transportation of energy more efficient and affordable. Researchers Bellave S. Shivaram and Adam B. Phillips presented their findings at the International Symposium on Materials Issues in a Hydrogen Economy on 12 November in Richmond, Va.

“In terms of hydrogen absorption, these materials could prove a world record,” Phillips said. “Most materials today absorb only 7 to 8 percent of hydrogen by weight, and only at cryogenic temperatures. Our materials absorb hydrogen up to 14 percent by weight at room temperature. By absorbing twice as much hydrogen, the new materials could help make the dream of a hydrogen economy come true.”
Phillips’ and Shivaram’s research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.

For more information, see: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-11/uov-sdr111207.php




Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

Copyright © 2008 IEEE

 search archive


reader feedback
  search by date
also in this issue
Backscatter: The Case for Aptitude Testing
Cogent Communicator: Bombarded by Messages
Science and Technology Policy Advocacy
Opinion: We Gray Americans
Five Mistakes Leaders Make When Hiring
Licensure Update: NCEES Approves Revised Approach to Education Initiative
Your Engineering Heritage: Dials, Keypads and Smartphones
World Bytes: Blind Adventure
Tech News Digest: September 2014