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Washington Technology Digest

Compiled By IEEE-USA Staff

The following is a recap of news and notable developments in electrical engineering and computer or information technology emerging from the federal government during April-May 2008. Highlighted topics include:

  1. Twelve Universities Receive DOE EPSCOR Funding for Basic Research Projects

  2. Princeton Research Suggests New Understanding of Superconductivity

  3. Superinsulator Research Has Implications from MagLev to Electric Circuits

  4. New Silicon Circuits Can Fold

  5. Transportation Research and Analysis Computing Center Opens in Chicago

  6. Dramatic Increase in Thermoelectric Efficiency Achieved

  7. New System Maps Internet “Black Holes”

  8. Entangled Photons Used to Advance Quantum Computing

  9. Needle Sized Device Will Help Track Radiation Doses for Tumor Treatments

  10. Music File Compressed 1000 Times Smaller Than MP3

  11. Graphene Shows Promise as New Semiconductor Material

  12. New Membrane Could Increase Fuel Cell Efficiency

  13. New System Promises Lab Standard Callibration Measurements on the Shop Floor

  14. NIST Demonstrates Secure, Speedy, On-card Fingerprint Match

  15. Interoperability Week: 28 April – 2 May

  16. Take a Virtual Tour of the National Hurricane Center

1. Twelve Universities Receive DOE EPSCOR Funding for Basic Research Projects

On April 7, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced investments of $5.2 million in basic research projects with 12 universities from across the country. In an effort to ensure America remains the world leader in scientific research and innovation, universities selected will pair with a DOE national laboratory to maximize expertise. These research projects, ranging from advanced solar cells to hydrogen energy systems, are a part of DOE’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), a federal-state partnership program designed to lead the world in meeting the nation’s growing energy needs through increased competition in energy-related research and development across the nation.

For more information, see: http://www.doe.gov/news/6148.htm

2. Princeton Research Suggests New Understanding of Superconductivity

For more than 20 years since the discovery of high-temperature superconductivity, scientists have been debating the underlying physical mechanism for this exotic phenomenon, which has the potential to revolutionize the electrical power distribution network.

They've argued at length over the origin of what some have imagined to be a microscopic "glue" that binds the electrons into pairs so they glide effortlessly, overcoming their normal repulsion in typical metals. Is it magnetism or vibrations in the lattice structure of the material or something else."

Now, two years of experiments carried out at Princeton University with support from the U.S. Department of Energy have a group of scientists saying that high-temperature superconductivity does not hinge on a magical glue binding electrons together. The secret to superconductivity, they say, may rest instead on the ability of electrons to take advantage of their natural repulsion in a complex situation.

Reporting in the April 11 issue of the journal Science, the team has uncovered an unexpected connection between the behavior of electrons when they pair up — a key requirement for superconductivity — and when the electrons are repelling one another at temperatures far above the critical temperature at which a material superconducts. Their experiments have shown that electrons exhibit a characteristic behavior when repelling each other that, strangely enough, signals their special talent for pairing and flowing without resistance when these complex materials are cooled to low temperatures.

For more information, see: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-04/pu-wtg040708.php

3. Superinsulator Research Has Implications from MagLev to Electric Circuits

As reported in the April 3 issue of Nature, Argonne National Laboratory senior scientist Valerii Vinokur and Russian scientist Tatyana Baturina, an international team of scientists from Argonne, Germany, Russia and Belgium fashioned a thin film of titanium nitride which they then chilled to near absolute zero. When they tried to pass a current through the material, the researchers noticed that its resistance suddenly increased by a factor of 100,000 once the temperature dropped below a certain threshold. The same sudden change also occurred when the researchers decreased the external magnetic field.

Like superconductors, which have applications in many different areas of physics, from accelerators to magnetic-levitation (maglev) trains to MRI machines, superinsulators could eventually find their way into a number of products, including circuits, sensors and battery shields.

If, for example, a battery is left exposed to the air, the charge will eventually drain from it in a matter of days or weeks because the air is not a perfect insulator, according to Vinokur. "If you pass a current through a superconductor, then it will carry the current forever; conversely, if you have a superinsulator, then it will hold a charge forever," he said.

Scientists could eventually form superinsulators that would encapsulate superconducting wires, creating an optimally efficient electrical pathway with almost no energy lost as heat. A miniature version of these superinsulated superconducting wires could find their way into more efficient electrical circuits.

For more information, see: http://www.anl.gov/Media_Center/News/2008/MSD080404.html

4. New Silicon Circuits Can Fold

With funding support from DOE and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, University of Illinois scientists have developed a new form of stretchable silicon integrated circuit that can wrap around complex shapes such as spheres, body parts and aircraft wings, and can operate during stretching, compressing, folding and other types of extreme mechanical deformations, without a reduction in electrical performance.

“The notion that silicon cannot be used in such applications because it is intrinsically brittle and rigid has been tossed out the window,” said John Rogers, a Founder Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois.

The new designs and fabrication strategies could produce wearable systems for personal health monitoring and therapeutics, or systems that wrap around mechanical parts such as aircraft wings and fuselages to monitor structural properties.

“We’re opening an engineering design space for electronics and optoelectronics that goes well beyond what planar configurations on semiconductor wafers can offer,” Rogers said.

For more information, see: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-03/uoia-fas032508.php

5. Transportation Research and Analysis Computing Center Opens in Chicago

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Research and Innovative Technology Administration, has announced the opening of the Transportation Research and Analysis Computing Center (TRACC) in suburban Chicago.

The new, state-of-the-art modeling, simulation and high-performance computing center will tackle a host of intractable transportation problems, including traffic congestion in major cities, the effects of stresses on transportation infrastructure, and the crashworthiness of vehicles.

TRACC is located at the DuPage National Technology Park, co-located with the DuPage Airport Authority in West Chicago, Ill, and hosts a dedicated new high-performance computing system intended to deliver substantial computing power to address these and other transportation problems via simulations.

Simulations will allow researchers to study vehicle performance issues like aerodynamic drag, fuel injector spray dynamics and under-the-hood thermal management, as well as road weather research.

For more information, see: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-03/dnl-ado032508.php

6. Dramatic Increase in Thermoelectric Efficiency Achieved

Researchers at Boston College and MIT have used nanotechnology to achieve a major increase in thermoelectric efficiency, a milestone that paves the way for a new generation of products — from semiconductors and air conditioners to car exhaust systems and solar power technology — that run cleaner.

Using nanotechnology, the researchers at BC and MIT produced a big increase in the thermoelectric efficiency of bismuth antimony telluride — a semiconductor alloy that has been commonly used in commercial devices since the 1950s — in bulk form. Specifically, the team realized a 40 percent increase in the alloy’s figure of merit, a term used to measure a material’s relative performance. The achievement marks the first such gain in a half-century using the cost-effective material that functions at room temperatures and up to 250 degrees Celsius. The success using the relatively inexpensive and environmentally friendly alloy means the discovery can quickly be applied to a range of uses, leading to higher cooling and power generation efficiency.

The team’s low-cost approach involves building tiny alloy nanostructures that can serve as micro-coolers and power generators. The researchers said that in addition to being inexpensive, their method will likely result in practical, near-term enhancements to make products consume less energy or capture energy that would otherwise be wasted.

The findings represent a key milestone in the quest to harness the thermoelectric effect, which has both enticed and frustrated scientists since its discovery in the early 19th century. The effect refers to certain materials that can convert heat into electricity and vice versa. But there has been a hitch in trying to exploit the effect: most materials that conduct electricity also conduct heat, so their temperature equalizes quickly. In order to improve efficiency, scientists have sought materials that will conduct electricity without the corresponding heat.

For more information, see: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-03/bc-bcm031808.php

7. New System Maps Internet “Black Holes”

At any given moment, a proportion of computer traffic ends up being routed into information black holes. These are situations where a path between two computers does exist, but messages — a request to visit a Web site, an outgoing e-mail — get lost along the way.

A University of Washington system named Hubble looks for these black holes and maps them on a Web site, providing an ever-changing constellation of the Internet's weak points. The Hubble map lets visitors see a map of problems worldwide or type in a specific Web page or network address to check its status. The work is being presented next week in San Francisco at the Usenix Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation.

"There's an assumption that if you have a working Internet connection then you have access to the entire Internet," said first author Ethan Katz-Bassett, a UW doctoral student in computer science and engineering. "We found that's not the case."

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the project is named for the Hubble Space Telescope, which can observe black holes in deep space, because the UW tool performs a similar function for the maze of routers and fiber-optic cables that make up the Internet. In fact, research on the Internet's structure and performance is sometimes described as Internet astronomy.

For more information, see: http://uwnews.org/article.asp?articleID=40871

8. Entangled Photons Used to Advance Quantum Computing

Prem Kumar, the AT&T Professor of Information Technology in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the director of the Center for Photonic Communication and Computing, and his research group at Northwestern University recently demonstrated one of the basic building blocks for distributed quantum computing using entangled photons generated in optical fibers.

"Because it is done with fiber and the technology that is already globally deployed, we think that it is a significant step in harnessing the power of quantum computers," Kumar says.

Quantum computing differs from classical computing in that a classical computer works by processing "bits" that exist in two states, either one or zero. Quantum computing uses quantum bits, or qubits, which, in addition to being one or zero can also be in a "superposition," which is both one and zero simultaneously. This is possible because qubits are quantum units like atoms, ions, or photons that operate under the rules of quantum mechanics instead of classical mechanics.

Kumar's group, which uses photons as qubits, found that they can entangle two indistinguishable photons together in an optical fiber very efficiently by using the fiber's inherent nonlinear response. They also found that no matter how far you separate the two photons in standard transmission fibers they remain entangled and are "mysteriously" connected to each other's quantum state.

"This device that we demonstrated in the lab is a two-qubit device - nowhere near what's needed for a quantum computer - so what can you do with it?" Kumar says. "It's nice to demonstrate something useful to give a boost to the field, and there are some problems at hand that can be solved right now using what we have."

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has funded the group's next effort to study how to implement a quantum network for physically demonstrating efficient public goods strategies, which are similar to the mechanism design theory that Nobel laureate Roger Myerson laid the foundation for while at Northwestern.

For more information, see: http://www.mccormick.northwestern.edu/news/articles/354

9. Needle Sized Device Will Help Track Radiation Doses for Tumor Treatments

Engineers at Purdue University are creating a wireless device designed to be injected into tumors to tell doctors the precise dose of radiation received and locate the exact position of tumors during treatment.

The information would help to more effectively kill tumors, said Babak Ziaie, an associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and a researcher at Purdue's Birck Nanotechnology Center.

Ziaie is leading a team that has tested a prototype "wireless implantable passive micro-dosimeter" and said the device could be in clinical trials in 2010.

Funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, the research will appear in the June issue of IEEE’s “Transactions on Biomedical Engineering.”

For more information, see: http://news.uns.purdue.edu/x/2008a/080408ZiaieDosimeter.html

10. Music File Compressed 1000 Times Smaller Than MP3

NSF-funded researchers at the University of Rochester have digitally reproduced music in a file nearly 1,000 times smaller than a regular MP3 file.

The music, a 20-second clarinet solo, is encoded in less than a single kilobyte, and is made possible by two innovations: recreating in a computer both the real-world physics of a clarinet and the physics of a clarinet player.

The achievement, announced on April 1 at the International Conference on Acoustics Speech and Signal Processing held in Las Vegas, is not yet a flawless reproduction of an original performance, but the researchers say it's getting close.

"This is essentially a human-scale system of reproducing music," says Mark Bocko, professor of electrical and computer engineering and co-creator of the technology. "Humans can manipulate their tongue, breath, and fingers only so fast, so in theory we shouldn't really have to measure the music many thousands of times a second like we do on a CD. As a result, I think we may have found the absolute least amount of data needed to reproduce a piece of music."

For more information, see: http://www.rochester.edu/news/show.php?id=3136

11. Graphene Shows Promise as New Semiconductor Material

University of Maryland physicists have shown that in graphene the intrinsic limit to the mobility, a measure of how well a material conducts electricity, is higher than any other known material at room temperature. Graphene, a single-atom-thick sheet of graphite, is a new material which combines aspects of semiconductors and metals.

A team of researchers led by physics professor Michael S. Fuhrer of the university's Center for Nanophysics and Advanced Materials, and the Maryland NanoCenter said the findings are the first measurement of the effect of thermal vibrations on the conduction of electrons in graphene, and show that thermal vibrations have an extraordinarily small effect on the electrons in graphene.

Their results, published online in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, indicate that graphene holds great promise for replacing conventional semiconductor materials such as silicon in applications ranging from high-speed computer chips to biochemical sensors.

Graphene shows special promise for chemical and bio-chemical sensing applications. The low resitivity and extremely thin nature of graphene also promises applications in thin, mechanically tough, electrically conducting, transparent films. Such films are needed in a variety of electronics applications from touch screens to photovoltaic cells.

For more information, see: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-03/uom-ups032308.php

12. New Membrane Could Increase Fuel Cell Efficiency

With support from the National Science Foundation and U.S. Office of Naval Research, researchers at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering have developed a new membrane technology that allows fuel cells to operate at low humidity and theoretically to operate at higher temperatures.

“The current gold standard membrane is a polymer that needs to be in a humid environment in order to function efficiently,” said Mark Wiesner, Ph.D., a Duke civil engineer and senior author of the paper. “If the polymer membrane dries out, its efficiency drops. We developed a ceramic membrane made of iron nanoparticles that works at much lower humidities. And because it is a ceramic, it should also tolerate higher temperatures.

Fuel cells are commonly used in such settings as satellites, submarines or remote weather stations because they have no moving parts, do not require combustion and can run unattended for long periods of time. However, current fuel cells lose efficiency as the temperature rises and the humidity falls.

For more information, see: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-03/du-fci031908.php

13. New System Promises Lab Standard Callibration Measurements on the Shop Floor

The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is launching a revolutionary new measurement system that will bring laboratory level standards to the shop floor. The technology enables significantly improved calibration times and thereby, minimises machine downtime for industries across the manufacturing sector.

NPL and its partner ETALON are unveiling Laser TRACER at MACH 2008 in Birmingham. This is a high-speed, ultra precise, mobile system for the calibration and verification of coordinate-measuring machines (CMM), CNC machine tools, and other leading-edge measurement applications.

Laser TRACER relies on a highly stable laser source and an NPL patented internal design that is mechanically and thermally decoupled from the tracking mechanism, providing the ultimate in stability and accuracy of measurement.

For more information, see: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-04/npl-qfb041408.php

14. NIST Demonstrates Secure, Speedy, On-card Fingerprint Match

A fingerprint identification technology for use in Personal Identification Verification (PIV) cards that offers improved protection from identity theft meets the standardized accuracy criteria for federal identification cards according to researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Under Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 (HSPD 12), by this fall most federal employees and contractors will be using federally approved PIV cards to “authenticate” their identity when seeking entrance to federal facilities. In 2006 NIST published a standard* for the new credentials that specifies that the cards store a digital representation of key features or “minutiae” of the bearer’s fingerprints for biometric identification.

Under the current standard, a user seeking to enter a biometrically controlled access point would insert his or her PIV smart card into a slot—just like using an ATM card—and place their fingers on a fingerprint scanner. Authentication proceeds in two steps: the cardholder enters a personal identification number to allow the fingerprint minutiae to be read from the card, and the card reader matches the stored minutiae against the newly scanned image of the cardholder’s fingerprints.

In recent tests, NIST researchers assessed the accuracy and security of two variations on this model that, if accepted for government use, would offered improved features. The first** allows the biometric data on the card to travel across a secure wireless interface to eliminate the need to insert the card into a reader. The second*** uses an alternative authentication technique called “match-on-card” in which biometric data from the fingerprint scanner is sent to the PIV smart card for matching by a processor chip embedded in the card. The stored minutiae data never leave the card. The advantage of this, as computer scientist Patrick Grother explains, is that “if your card is lost and then found in the street, your fingerprint template cannot be copied.”

For more information, see: http://www.nist.gov/public_affairs/techbeat/tb2008_0401.htm#piv1

15. Interoperability Week:  28 April – 2 May

The National Institute of Standards and Technology hosted its third annual Interoperability Week in Gaithersburg, MD., April 28 - May 2. The Interoperability Week conference provides a venue for people from different disciplines to compare issues and share solutions to interoperability problems in their domain. The conference included participants from a variety of perspectives including manufacturing, eBusiness, standards development, and bioscience. Conference session topics include manufacturing systems integration, advanced semantic language development, digital image search, sensor integration, and enterprise integration.

For more information, see: http://www.mel.nist.gov/div826/msid/sima/interopweek/meetings.htm

16. Take a Virtual Tour of the National Hurricane Center

As hurricane season approaches, readers may be interested in this virtual tour of NOAA’s National Hurricane Center, which includes panoramic views of different areas of the facility, accompanied by audio and text descriptions. “This is an especially useful tool for students who are learning about tropical cyclones and weather forecasting,” said Bill Reed, director of the National Hurricane Center. “It also shows how the different branches of our facility work together for the best possible forecasts.”

For more information, see: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/nhctour.shtml




Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

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