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Washington Technology Digest

Compiled By IEEE-USA Staff

The following is a roundup of news and notable developments in electrical engineering and computer or information technology emerging from the federal government during May and June 2008. Items are excerpted from news releases generated by research universities and government agencies. Highlighted topics include:

  1. Michigan Tech Physicist Models Single Molecular Switch

  2. Study Finds New Properties In Non-Magnetic Materials

  3. “N-Variant” Chips Could Protect Intellectual Property, Enable New Services

  4. New Transistors Tested For Radiation Resistance On Space Station

  5. Research Explores Characteristics Of Iron-Based High-Temperature Superconductors

  6. New Type Of Magnetic Superconductor Suggested By FSU Research

  7. New Technology Offers Potential for an Electron Switch

  8. New Unified Theory of Lasers Offered

  9. Instant Messaging Useful In Reducing Workplace Interruption

  10. Petaflop Supercomputer Used To Mimic Neurological Processes

  11. New Technique Discovered For Combating Computer Viruses

  12. Nanoglassblowing Technique Offers Potential For Manufacture Of Optofluidic Elements

  13. DOE-Funded Research to Focus on Potential Risks from Nanomaterials

  14. Microwaves On A Chip Could Replace X-Rays For Medical Imaging And Security

  15. “Noise Thermometry” May Help Redefine International Unit Of Temperature

  16. DARPA Technology Enables Continued Flight In Spite Of Catastrophic Wing Damage

  17. DOE and GE Collaborate On Super Efficient Electric Water Heater

  18. GE Energy To Commercialize Oak Ridge Developed Radiation Detection Technology

1. Michigan Tech Physicist Models Single Molecular Switch

Michigan Technological University physicist Ranjit Pati and his team of NSF-funded researchers have developed a model to explain the mechanism behind computing’s elusive Holy Grail, the single molecular switch. If borne out experimentally, his work could help explode Moore’s Law and could revolutionize computing technology.

Moore’s Law predicts that the number of transistors that can be economically placed on an integrated circuit will double about every two years. But by 2020, Moore’s Law is expected to hit a brick wall, as manufacturing costs rise and transistors shrink beyond the reach of the laws of classical physics.

A solution lies in the fabled molecular switch. If molecules could replace the current generation of transistors, you could fit more than a trillion switches onto a centimeter-square chip. In 1999, a team of researchers at Yale University published a description of the first such switch, but scientists have been unable to replicate their discovery or explain how it worked. Now, Pati believes he and his team may have found the mechanism behind the switch.

Applying quantum physics, he and his group developed a computer model of an organometallic molecule firmly bound between two gold electrodes. Then he turned on the juice. As the laws of physics would suggest, the current increased along with the voltage, until it rose to a miniscule 142 microamps. Then suddenly, and counterintuitively, it dropped, a mysterious phenomenon known as negative differential resistance, or NDR. Pati was astonished at what his analysis of the NDR revealed.

Up until the 142-microamp tipping point, the molecule’s cloud of electrons had been whizzing about the nucleus in equilibrium, like planets orbiting the sun. But under the bombardment of the higher voltage, that steady state fell apart, and the electrons were forced into a different equilibrium, a process known as “quantum phase transition.”

Pati is working with other scientists to test the model experimentally. His results appear in the article “Origin of Negative Differential Resistance in a Strongly Coupled Single Molecule-metal Junction Device,” published June 16 in Physical Review Letters.

For more information, see: http://link.aps.org/abstract/PRL/v100/e246801 

2. Study Finds New Properties on Non-Magnetic Materials

A team of Penn State researchers has shown for the first time that the entire class of "non-magnetic" materials, such as those used in some computer components, could have considerably more uses than scientists had thought. The findings are important because they reveal previously unknown information about the structure of these materials, expanding the number of properties that they potentially could have. A material's properties, such as electrical conductivity and mechanical strength, are what determine its usefulness.

The team's findings could lead to an explosion of research into new properties of "non-magnetic" materials and to possible applications of these properties. "These materials are used in hundreds of applications," said Peter Schiffer, associate vice president for research and a professor of physics at Penn State, "but this new work holds great promise for finding many more uses."

The research will be published in the journal Physical Review Letters. For more information, see: www.science.psu.edu/alert/gopalan6-2008.htm

3. 'N-Variant' Chips Could Protect Intellectual Property, Enable New Services

Rice University computer engineers have created a way to design integrated circuits that can contain many multiple selves. The chips can assume one identify or a subset of identities at a time, depending on the user's needs. New research shows that multiple "personalities" in an integrated circuit can be even a more powerful security mechanism that can be used for a variety of digital rights management tasks as well as for circuit optimization and customization without sacrificing the related power, delay and area metrics.

The technology was unveiled at the 2008 Design Automation Conference (DAC) in Anaheim, Calif. It could be used for enhanced device security, content provisioning, application metering, device optimization and more.

For more information, see: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-06/ru-dmt061108.php 

4. New Transistors Tested for Radiation Resistance on Space Station

Transistors based on a new kind of material created by Northwestern University researchers have been lifted into outer space on the space shuttle Endeavour and attached to the outside of the International Space Station for radiation testing. The transistors, which used a new kind of gate dielectric material called a self-assembled nanodielectric, will remain there for a year as part of a NASA materials experiment to see how they and other materials hold up to the harsh space environment.

For more information, see: www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2008/06/transistors.html 

5. Research Explores Characteristics of Iron-Based High-Temperature Superconductors

In an article published today in the journal Nature, the team, led by Chia-Ling Chien, the Jacob L. Hain Professor of Physics and director of the Material Research Science and Engineering Center at The Johns Hopkins University, offers insights into why the characteristics of a new family of iron-based superconductors reveal the need for fresh theoretical models which could, they say, pave the way for the development of superconductors that can operate at room temperature.

"It appears to us that the new iron-based superconductors disclose a new physics, contain new mysteries and may start us along an uncharted pathway to room temperature superconductivity," said Chien. He added, "If superconductors could exist at room temperatures, the world energy crisis would be solved."

For more information, see: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-06/jhu-nsp060408.php 

6. New Type of Magnetic Superconductor Suggested By FSU Research

Researchers at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State University have discovered unusual properties in a novel superconducting material that point to an entirely new kind of superconductor, with surprising magnetic properties that suggest applications ranging from improved MRIs and research magnets to a new generation of superconducting electric motors, generators and power transmission lines.

The research also adds to the long list of mysteries surrounding superconductivity, providing evidence that the new materials, which scientists are calling "doped rare earth iron oxyarsenides," develop superconductivity in quite a new way, as detailed in the latest issue of the prestigious journal Nature.

For more information, see: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-05/fsu-mlr052808.php

7. New Technology Offers Potential for an Electron Switch

University of Oregon researchers trying to flip the spin of electrons with laser bursts lasting picoseconds (a trillionth of a second) instead found a way to manipulate and control the spin — knowledge that may prove useful in a variety of new materials and technologies.

For more information, see: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-05/uoo-opd052708.php 

8. New Unified Theory of Lasers Offered

Researchers at Yale and the Institute of Quantum Electronics at ETH Zurich have formulated a theory that, allows scientists to better understand and predict the properties of both conventional and nonconventional lasers, according to a recent article in Science.

For more information, see: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-05/yu-nut052708.php

9. Instant Messaging Useful In Reducing Workplace Interruption

Employers seeking to decrease interruptions may want to have their workers use instant messaging software, a new study suggests. A recent study by researchers at Ohio State University and University of California, Irvine, found that workers who used instant messaging on the job reported less interruption than colleagues who did not. The study challenges the widespread belief that instant messaging leads to an increase in disruption.

For more information, see: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-06/osu-imp060308.php 

10. Petaflop Supercomputer Used To Mimic Neurological Processes

Less than a week after Los Alamos National Laboratory's Roadrunner supercomputer began operating at world-record petaflop/s data-processing speeds, Los Alamos researchers are already using the computer to mimic extremely complex neurological processes.

While verifying Roadrunner's performance, Los Alamos and IBM researchers used three different computational codes to test the machine. Among those codes was one dubbed "PetaVision" by its developers. PetaVision models the human visual system —mimicking more than 1 billion visual neurons and trillions of synapses. Neurons are nerve cells that process information in the brain. Neurons communicate with each other using synaptic connections, analogous to what transistors are in modern computer chips. Synapses store memories and play a vital role in learning.

Based on the results of PetaVision's inaugural trials, Los Alamos researchers believe they can study in real time the entire human visual cortex — arguably a human being's most important sensory apparatus.

The ability to achieve human levels of cognitive performance on a digital computer could lead to important insights and revolutionary technological applications. Such applications include "smart" cameras that can recognize danger or an autopilot system for automobiles that could take over for incapacitated drivers in complex situations such as navigating dense urban traffic.

For more information, see: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-06/danl-rsp061208.php

11. New Technique Discovered For Combating Computer Viruses

Computer Scientists may have found a new way to combat the most dangerous form of computer virus. The method automatically detects within minutes when an Internet worm has infected a computer network. Network administrators can then isolate infected machines and hold them in quarantine for repairs. Ness Shroff, Ohio Eminent Scholar in Networking and Communications at Ohio State University, and his colleagues describe their strategy in the current issue of IEEE Transactions on Dependable and Secure Computing.

For more information, see: http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/networm.htm 

12. Nanoglassblowing Technique Offers Potential For Manufacture Of Optofluidic Elements

Using a new fabrication technique called “nanoglassblowing,” researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Cornell University have created nanoscale (billionth of a meter) fluidic devices used to isolate and study single molecules in solution — including individual DNA strands. The novel method is described in a forthcoming paper in the journal Nanotechnology.

With this technique, researchers were able to create devices with “funnels” many micrometers wide and about a micrometer deep that tapered down to nanochannels with depths as shallow as 7 nanometers — approximately 1,000 times smaller in diameter than a red blood cell.

Future nanoglassblown devices, the researchers say, could be fabricated to help sort DNA strands of different sizes or as part of a device to identify the base-pair components of single strands. Other potential applications of the technique include the manufacture of optofluidic elements — lenses or waveguides that could change how light is moved around a microchip — and rounded chambers in which single cells could be confined and held for culturing.

13. DOE-Funded Research to Focus on Potential Risks from Nanomaterials

Potential risks from the use of nanomaterials will be explored by three Arizona State University engineering faculty in a project supported by a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research. Researchers will examine how and where nanomaterials get transported and what environmental and biological risks the materials may pose.

For more information, see: www.fulton.asu.edu/fulton/news/page.php?sid=485 

14. Microwaves on a Chip Could Replace X-Rays for Medical Imaging and Security

Microwaves with frequencies from a few hundred gigahertz (GHz) up to slightly over 1 terahertz (THz), penetrate just a short distance into surfaces without the ionizing damage caused by X-rays. The technology could be used to detect skin cancer or image dental flaws beneath the enamel. It could also be a valuable tool for airport security, to detect objects hidden under clothing.

Most of these applications require inexpensive portable hardware that can generate signals in the GHz to THz range with more than 1 watt of power. However, transistors on a standard silicon chip have been limited to a few milliwatts at up to about 100 GHz.

Now a method of generating high-power signals at frequencies of 200 GHz and higher on an ordinary silicon chip has been proposed by Ehsan Afshari, Cornell assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Harish Bhat, assistant professor of mathematics at the University of California-Merced. The researchers presented a mathematical analysis of the new method in the May issue of the journal Physical Review.

According to computer simulations by Afshari and Bhat, the process can be implemented on a common complimentary metal-oxide silicon (CMOS) chip to generate signals at frequencies well above the ordinary cutoff frequencies of such chips, with at least 10 times the input power. Frequencies up to around 1.16 THz are possible, the researchers predict.

For more information, see: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-05/cuc-htm052908.php 

15. “Noise Thermometry” May Help Redefine International Unit of Temperature

After seven years of work, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have built a system that relies on the “noise” of jiggling electrons as a basis for measuring temperatures with extreme precision. The system is nearly precise enough now to help update some of the crucial underpinnings of science, including the 54-year-old definition of the Kelvin, the international unit of temperature.

NIST’s Johnson noise thermometry (JNT) system, described at the Conference on Precision Electromagnetic Measurements on June 9 represents a fivefold advance in the state-of-the-art in noise thermometry thanks to its use of a unique quantum voltage source combined with recent reductions in systematic errors and uncertainty. It is also simpler and more compact than other leading systems for measuring high temperatures, such as those based on the pressure and volume of gases.

For more information, see: www.nist.gov/public_affairs/techbeat/tb2008_0610.htm#noise 

16. DARPA Technology Enables Continued Flight in Spite of Catastrophic Wing Damage

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has demonstrated that damage tolerant flight control technology can successfully allow an unmanned aerial vehicle to continue to fly even after losing large portions of its wing.

In April, DARPA's Damage Tolerant Controls program completed a series of demonstrations culminating in recovery from loss of the majority of the right wing of a sub-scale F/A-18. The aircraft, under fully autonomous control from takeoff to landing, recovered from the catastrophic wing damage within seconds, and over the next few minutes the flight control system reconfigured itself to restore most of the original flight quality, allowing the aircraft to complete a flawless autonomous touchdown.

For more information, see: www.darpa.gov/body/news/2008/DamageTolerant.pdf 

17. DOE and GE Collaborate on Super Efficient Electric Water Heater

The Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory and General Electric have collaborated to finalize, test and market the first product from a major brand to meet DOE's new Energy Star criteria for electric heat pump water heaters. The GE Hybrid Water Heater is affordable and designed to be 50 percent more energy efficient than a standard 50 gallon electric water heater.

For more information, see: www.ornl.gov/info/press_releases/get_press_release.cfm?ReleaseNumber=mr20080605-00 

18. GE Energy To Commercialize Oak Ridge Developed Radiation Detection Technology

GE Energy, manufacturer of Reuter Stokes radiation detection equipment, has signed a technology transfer agreement to market the electronics and software associated with the SNS 8Pack neutron detector system, an award-winning design for a system of sensitive neutron detectors developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The SNS electronics can determine both the time and position of the neutron captured, enabling very accurate neutron time-of-flight measurements. It has large-area detector coverage, extremely low power requirements and digital communication capability.

For more information, see: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-06/drnl-get060308.php




Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

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