30 December 2005

Year End Technology Briefs

Wind Power Development

Xcel Energy, the utility company for several states including most of Colorado, is building more wind turbines, putting on track to be the leading provider of wind power in the United States. This isn't simply a matter of corporate goodwill. A voter initiative in Colorado has pretty much compelled the move (Amendment 37 requires 10% of Colorado's electricity to have renewable sources by 2015), and a settlement agreement that allowed it to build a coal fired plant near Pueblo forced it to go beyond the voter imposed mandate. But, the rising prices of oil, natural gas and coal, and increased costs associated with pollution controls, combined with falling prices for wind turbines, has also made the economic costs more modest.

Small Computer Chips

Moore's Law, which predicts ever deceasing sizes for computer chips, is still on track. Molecule and atom sized chip components are in the near future. But, despite the best efforts of the engineering department, we are approaching theoretical size limits for computer chips that had once been so distant that they weren't of practical importance. Quantum computing may push the envelope a little further that a conventional atomic sized chip. But, pretty soon, programmers are going to have to tightening up the bulky and sloppy code that they have been allowed to write for a few years as hardware capabilities have made compact and efficient codes a relatively low priority.

Competition For GPS

The Iron Law of Oligopoly works both ways. It both creates competition where there is a monopoly, and thins it when there are many competitors. We see the law in action as the American built Global Positioning Satellite System gets competition in the form of the European launched Galileo system due to come online in 2010. It will be accurate to within a meter, compared to GPS which is accurate to within five meters, and will make the U.S. military tactic of shutting down GPS to prevent it from being used by its opponents in military conflicts basically useless without European cooperation. Many commercial products offered after the launch will be able to use both systems.

Iranian Uranium Enrichment

Many countries, and especially the United States government, are concerned that Iran's new uranium enrichment program would allow Iran to build nuclear bombs, despite its protests that this is not its plan. Russia has come in to offer a solution. It would enrich nuclear fuel for Iran in its own facilities, keeping enrichment facilities out of Iran and more accessible to monitors. Russia, after all, already has uranium enrichment facilities. This could, at least, temporarily, eliminate any basis for a war with Iran which the Bush Administration has been trying to stir up since the President's Axis of Evil speech. Needless to say, after the Iraq intelligence failures (which even President Bush has now admitted), our allies are skeptical of U.S. claims about nuclear proliferation. We have cried wolf once and it will be a long time before we are trusted again. The Russian offer, combined with a new found skepticism, means that any U.S. war with Iran would be unilateral.

Parkinson's Disease Stem Cell Treatment Possibilities

Rather than actually replacing dead neurons, scientists are now looking at using stem cells implants as direct dopamine producers as a treatment for neurological diseases like Parkinson's Disease and have had some success in laboratory rats and monkeys. The approach is comparable to putting an insulin pump in diabetics, but is biological. Brain diseases have been resistant to injection and intravenous (IV) treatments used for many other diseases as many chemicals can't be transferred from blood to the brain. Hat Tip to Science News.

Super Strong Armor

Israeli commercial scientists have discovered a Buckyball like configuration of tungsten Disulfide (WS2) which would be twice as shock resistant as current materials used as armor protection for military purposes. It is about five times as strong as steel. Bucky balls, named after Buckminster Fuller who was famous for his geodesic dome architectural ideas, are carbon atoms arranged in a geodesic sphere.

Robotic Vision Software

I've previously noted on this blog that the main barrier to unmanned ground vehicles and many other robotic applications has been good software to process non-3D visual data. Stanford University is making process on this front.

Broad Based Theories About Biological Systems

Two important new theories fit key aspects of animal functioning into grand unified equations that explain animal metabolism and locomotion.

The metabolism equations has been called a Master Equation for Life.

Scientists have long known that most biological rates appear to bear a simple mathematical relationship to an animal's size: They are proportional to the animal's mass raised to a power that is a multiple of 1/4. These relationships are known as quarter-power scaling laws. For instance, an animal's metabolic rate appears to be proportional to mass to the 3/4 power, and its heart rate is proportional to mass to the -1/4 power.
In subsequent decades, biologists have found that the 3/4-power law appears to hold sway from microbes to whales, creatures of sizes ranging over a mind-boggling 21 orders of magnitude.

The locomotion equation isn't quite so ambitious in what it claims to explain, but is equally notable.

[F]indings, published in the January 2006 issue of "The Journal of Experimental Biology," challenge the notion that fundamental differences between apparently unrelated forms of locomotion exist. The findings also offer an explanation for remarkable universal similarities in animal design that had long puzzled scientists, the researchers said.

"The similarities among animals that are on the surface very different are no coincidence," said Adrian Bejan, J. A. Jones Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Duke's Pratt School. "In fact, animal locomotion is no different than other flows, animate and inanimate: they all develop in space and in time such that they optimize the flow of material." In the case of animal locomotion, this means that animals move such that they travel the greatest distance while expending the least amount of energy, he said.

"From simple physics, based only on gravity, density and mass, you can explain within an order of magnitude many features of flying, swimming and running," added James Marden, professor of biology at Penn State. "It doesn't matter whether the animal has eight legs, four legs, two, even if it swims with no legs."

First conceived by Bejan and published in 1996, the constructal law arises from the basic principle that flow systems evolve so as to minimize imperfections -- energy wasted to friction or other forms of resistance -- such that the least amount of useful energy is lost.

Both theories basically look at what is optimal in terms of meeting basic life functions from a physics perspective and find that these constraints have indeed shaped what animals have had to do to evolve and survive. A recent post here about the role of oxygen in biological scale falls in the same category. Now that we have started to understand the fundamentals, science is moving on to get a better grasp of the phenomena that emerge from those fundamental laws of nature.

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