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September 23, 2006, 11:38 AM CT

Taking Uncertainty Principle To Unprecedented Level

Taking Uncertainty Principle To Unprecedented Level A scanning electron microscope image of an aluminum and silicon nitride resonator coupled to a superconducting single electron transistor.
In the submicroscopic world -- the domain of elementary particles and individual atoms -- things behave in the strange, counter-intuitive fashion governed by the principles of quantum mechanics. Nothing (or so it seems) like our macroscopic world -- or even the microscopic world of cells or bacteria or dust particles -- where Newton's much more reasonable laws keep things sensibly ordered.

The problem comes in finding the dividing line between the two worlds -- or even in establishing that such a line exists. To that end, Keith Schwab, associate professor of physics who moved to Cornell this year from the National Security Agency, and his colleagues have created a device that approaches this quantum mechanical limit at the largest length-scale to date.

And surprisingly, the research also has shown how scientists can lower the temperature of an object -- just by watching it.

The results, which could have applications in quantum computing, cooling engineering and more, appear in the Sept. 14 issue of the journal Nature.

The device is actually a tiny (8.7 microns, or millionths of a meter, long; 200 nanometers, or billionths of a meter, wide) sliver of aluminum on silicon nitride, pinned down at both ends and allowed to vibrate in the middle. Nearby, Schwab positioned a superconducting single electron transistor (SSET) to detect minuscule changes in the sliver's position.........

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September 19, 2006, 5:08 AM CT

Detect Coastal Ocean Pollution

Detect Coastal Ocean Pollution Image courtesy of Time
Public health officials now may be able to know instantly when pollution has moved into the coastal ocean - a breakthrough that could enable authorities to post warnings or close beaches in minutes rather than days thanks to research by UC Irvine researchers.

The new technique analyzes temperature and salinity data collected by sensors located in the water along the Southern California coast. Researchers found that fluctuations in the sensor data correlate with changes in water quality as soon as they occur. This type of analysis may lead to detection methods that are far faster than the current method of physically collecting water and testing it in a lab.

"Decisions to post a warning or close a beach are currently made one to three days after a sample is collected. This would be fine if you were testing water that sits in a tub, but ocean currents are highly dynamic, and water quality varies hour by hour and minute to minute," said Stanley B. Grant, professor of chemical engineering and materials science at UCI. "Our research shows that near real-time sensor data can be used to detect changes in the state of the coastal ocean - information that could, in concert with traditional monitoring data and new ocean observing systems, eventually result in the creation of an up-to-the-minute water-quality report accessible by the public on the Internet".........

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September 18, 2006, 9:20 PM CT

Engine On A Chip Would Be Best The Battery

Engine On A Chip Would Be Best The Battery Professor Alan Epstein
MIT scientists are putting a tiny gas-turbine engine inside a silicon chip about the size of a quarter. The resulting device could run 10 times longer than a battery of the same weight can, powering laptops, cell phones, radios and other electronic devices.

It could also dramatically lighten the load for people who can't connect to a power grid, including soldiers who now must carry a number of pounds of batteries for a three-day mission -- all at a reasonable price.

The scientists say that in the long term, mass-production could bring the per-unit cost of power from microengines close to that for power from today's large gas-turbine power plants.

Making things tiny is all the rage. The field -- called microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS -- grew out of the computer industry's stunning success in developing and using micro technologies. "Forty years ago, a computer filled up a whole building," said Professor Alan Epstein of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. "Now we all have microcomputers on our desks and inside our thermostats and our watches".

While others are making miniature devices ranging from biological sensors to chemical processors, Epstein and a team of 20 faculty, staff and students are looking to make power -- personal power. "Big gas-turbine engines can power a city, but a little one could 'power' a person," said Epstein, whose colleagues are spread among MIT's Gas Turbine Laboratory, Microsystems Technology Laboratories, and Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electronic Systems.........

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September 18, 2006, 8:25 PM CT

Taming Tricky Carbon Nanotubes

Taming Tricky Carbon Nanotubes MIT researchers have discovered that certain molecules can attach themselves to metallic carbon nanotubes without interfering with the nanotubes' exceptional ability to conduct electricity.
Based on a new theory, MIT researchers may be able to manipulate carbon nanotubes -- one of the strongest known materials and one of the trickiest to work with -- without destroying their extraordinary electrical properties.

The work is published in the Sept. 15 issue of Physical Review Letters, the journal of the American Physical Society.

Carbon nanotubes -- cylindrical carbon molecules 50,000 times thinner than a human hair -- have properties that make them potentially useful in nanotechnology, electronics, optics and reinforcing composite materials. With an internal bonding structure rivaling that of another well-known form of carbon, diamonds, carbon nanotubes are extraordinarily strong and can be highly efficient electrical conductors.

The problem is working with them. There is no reliable way to arrange the tubes into a circuit, partly because growing them can result in a randomly oriented mess resembling a bowl of spaghetti.

Scientists have attached to the side walls of the tiny tubes chemical molecules that work as "handles" that allow the tubes to be assembled and manipulated. But these molecular bonds also change the tubes' structure and destroy their conductivity.

Now Young-Su Lee, an MIT graduate student in materials science and engineering, and Nicola Marzari, an associate professor in the same department, have identified a class of chemical molecules that preserve the metallic properties of carbon nanotubes and their near-perfect ability to conduct electricity with little resistance.........

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September 14, 2006, 8:47 PM CT

Ferns Provide Model For Tiny Motors

Ferns Provide Model For Tiny Motors
Researchers looked to ferns to create a novel energy scavenging device that uses the power of evaporation to move itself -- materials that could provide a method for powering micro and nano devices with just water or heat.

"We've shown that this idea works," said Michel Maharbiz, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science and principal investigator in the group that built the device. "If you build these things they will move. The key is to show that you can generate electricity from this."

As often happens, the research started while doctoral student Ruba Borno was exploring another idea entirely. Borno was interested in mimicking biological devices, specifically microchannels that plants use to transport water, so Maharbiz gave her a book on plants.

But something else in the book caught her attention - the section on how ferns spread their spores.

"It's essentially a microactuator," said Maharbiz, meaning that the fern sporangium transforms one form of energy, in this case heat via the evaporation of water, into motion. When the cells in the outer wall of the sporangium were water logged, the sporangium remained closed like a fist, storing the spores safely inside. But when the water in the outer wall evaporated, it caused the sporangium to unfurl and eject the spores into the environment.........

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September 14, 2006, 4:50 AM CT

Molecular Sieve For Protein Research

Molecular Sieve For Protein Research
New MIT technology promises to speed up the accurate sorting of proteins, work that may ultimately aid in the detection and treatment of disease.

Separating proteins from complex biological fluids such as blood is becoming increasingly important for understanding diseases and developing new treatments. The molecular sieve developed by MIT engineers is more precise than conventional methods and has the potential to be much faster.

The team's results appear in recent issues of Physical Review Letters, the Virtual Journal of Biological Physical Research and the Virtual Journal of Nanoscale Science and Technology.

The key to the molecular sieve, which is made using microfabrication technology, is the uniform size of the nanopores through which proteins are separated from biological fluids. Millions of pores can be spread across a microchip the size of a thumbnail.

The sieve makes it possible to screen proteins by specific size and shape.

In contrast, the current technique used for separating proteins, gel electrophoresis, is time-consuming and less predictable. Pore sizes in the gels vary, and the process itself is not well understood by scientists.

"No one has been able to measure the gel pore sizes accurately," said Jongyoon Han, the Karl Van Tassel Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Biological Engineering at MIT. "With our nanopore system, we control the pore size precisely, so we can control the sieving process of the protein molecules".........

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September 14, 2006, 4:42 AM CT

Serious Vulnerabilities In e-Voting Machines

Serious Vulnerabilities In e-Voting Machines Highlighting security vulnerabilities in electronic voting machines Credit: John Jameson, Princeton University
In a paper published on the Web today, a group of Princeton computer researchers said they created demonstration vote-stealing software that can be installed within a minute on a common electronic voting machine. The software can fraudulently change vote counts without being detected.

"We have created and analyzed the code in the spirit of helping to guide public officials so that they can make wise decisions about how to secure elections," said Edward Felten, the director of the Center for Information Technology Policy, a new center at Princeton University that addresses crucial issues at the intersection of society and computer technology.

The paper appears on the Web site for the Center for Information Technology Policy.

The scientists obtained the machine, a Diebold AccuVote-TS, from a private party in May. They spent the summer analyzing the machine and developing the vote-stealing demonstration.

"We observed that the machine is vulnerable to many extremely serious attacks that undermine the accuracy and credibility of the vote counts it produces," wrote Felten and his co-authors, graduate students Ariel Feldman and Alex Halderman.

In a 10-minute video on their Web site, the scientists demonstrate how the vote-stealing software works. The video shows the software sabotaging a mock presidential election between George Washington and Benedict Arnold. Arnold is reported as the winner even though Washington gets more votes. (The video is edited from a longer continuously shot video; the long single-shot version will be available for downloading from the center's site as well.).........

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September 13, 2006, 9:10 PM CT

Clean Up With Edible Oil

Clean Up With Edible Oil
Oil and water don't mix, and that could be the key to edible vegetable-based oil being the answer to contaminant clean-up.

Clemson University researchers, in conjunction with the Savannah River National Laboratory (SRNL), are testing vegetable oil as a way to prevent contaminants from getting into groundwater aquifers. They say the method has the potential to help clean up chlorinated solvents, which are among the most common groundwater contaminants caused by industry. The study, which is taking place at the U.S. Department of Energy's Savannah River Site, is funded with a $35,000 grant from SRS through the South Carolina Universities Research and Education Foundation (SCUREF).

Clemson University geologist Larry Murdoch said the oil is injected through hydraulic fractures made 20 to 30 feet into the ground. When injected, the vegetable oil draws in oil-based contaminants that have leaked from pipes or tanks. If mixed with water, the contaminants separate as droplets, with small amounts dissolving into the water and making it hazardous. But, if another oil is introduced, the contaminants steer clear of the water, drawn instead towards the edible-oil source.

"Something else can happen to clean up the contaminants," said Murdoch. "Some microbes in the ground subsurface will degrade solvents. The edible oils create the right conditions for those kinds of microbes to flourish, so they seek out the contaminants and break them down. We hope the oil will both trap and destroy contaminants underground".........

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September 13, 2006, 5:14 AM CT

Greener Path To Iron Production

Greener Path To Iron Production
MIT engineers have demonstrated an eco-friendly way to make iron that eliminates the greenhouse gases usually associated with its production.

The American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) announced recently that the team, led by Donald R. Sadoway of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, has shown the technical viability of producing iron by molten oxide electrolysis (MOE).

"What sets molten oxide electrolysis apart from other metal-producing technologies is that it is totally carbon-free and hence generates no carbon dioxide gases -- only oxygen," said Lawrence W. Kavanagh, AISI vice president of manufacturing and technology.

The work was funded by the AISI/Department of Energy Technology Roadmap Program (TRP). The TRP goal is to increase the competitiveness of the U.S. steel industry while saving energy and enhancing the environment. According to the AISI, the MIT work "marks one of TRP's breakthrough projects toward meeting that goal".

Unlike other iron-making processes, MOE works by passing an electric current through a liquid solution of iron oxide. The iron oxide then breaks down into liquid iron and oxygen gas, allowing oxygen to be the main byproduct of the process.

Electrolysis itself is nothing new -- all of the world's aluminum is produced this way. And that is one advantage of the new process: It is based on a technology that metallurgists are already familiar with. Unlike aluminum smelting, however, MOE is carbon-free.........

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September 13, 2006, 4:50 AM CT

Plastic Replicas Of Real Cells

Plastic Replicas Of Real Cells Real or replica?
Call them genuine fakes. Brown University biomedical engineer Diane Hoffman-Kim and her research team have made plastic replicas of real cells through a novel two-part molding process. The copies looked so authentic, Hoffman-Kim couldn't tell if they were real or rubber at first.

"When I saw the images from the microscope, I said, 'OK, I can't tell the difference,'" Hoffman-Kim said. "It was pretty amazing - and just what we wanted".

A description of the replicas, their ability to support cell growth, and their possible applications in science and medicine are published in Langmuir, a journal of the American Chemical Society.

The main cells used in the experiments were Schwann cells, which protect peripheral nerves by wrapping around their axons to create insulating myelin sheaths. Schwann cells also direct axon growth during cell development and repair.

Hoffman-Kim, an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Pharmacology, Physiology and Biotechnology and the Division of Engineering, said the realistic replicas could be used in laboratories to help researchers understand how these critical support cells sustain and direct nerve growth.

The replicas could also, eventually, be used in hospitals to help doctors regenerate nerves. If a patient's nerves are severed during an auto accident or other injury, a device coated with the imitation cells - a contraption called a nerve guidance channel - could be implanted into the injured area to help stimulate nerve growth and repair damaged tissue. Tissue engineers around the world are testing nerve guidance channels in animals and, in a few cases, in humans.........

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