Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Cheap Ethanol - and not from Corn

General Motors announced a partnership with Coskata of Warrenville, IL, a new company that claims it can make ethanol from wood chips, grass, and trash--including old tires--for a dollar a gallon. That's significantly less than it costs to make the biofuel from corn grain, which is the source of almost all the ethanol made in the United States.

Coskata executives, who until the announcement had kept the company's existence and technology under wraps, say they have developed a hybrid approach involving both thermochemical and biological processes for making ethanol. Until now, most researchers have focused on developing either thermochemical or biological methods. Coskata says that besides being cheaper than other ethanol production processes under development, its technology uses less energy and water.

GM will give financial, technical, and marketing support to Coskata to help it scale up its process, which so far has been demonstrated only at the lab scale. Coskata is completing a pilot-scale ethanol production facility and will announce locations for a 40,000-gallon-per-year facility and a 100-million-gallon-per-year commercial-scale plant later this year.

Smarter cars

This is nice, but just give me one that drives itself.

A "smart" dashboard that reduces the amount of information displayed to drivers during stressful periods on the road could be available in just five years, say German engineers.

A team from the Technical University of Berlin found they could improve reaction times in real driving conditions by monitoring drivers' brains and reducing distractions during periods of high brain activity. They were able to speed up driver's reactions by as much as 100 milliseconds. It might not sound much, but this is enough to reduce braking distance by nearly 3 metres when travelling at 100 kilometres per hour, says team leader Klaus-Robert Müller. "In a real life situation this could be enough to prevent an accident or stop someone being injured, or worse," he says. "We now have the brain-interface technology to make this a reality."

Bionic eyes and Augmented Reality

The first steps have been taken toward providing people with augmented
reality. This is even better than using glasses or goggles to provide it.
I don't know how small they can make LED's to get good resolution on this,
but you can bet they'll learn to shrink them down. I remember the fictional
ad that Sony did for the "PS9" that had nanobots going into the eyes to
interface with the game, this is the first step down that road.

By Hannah Hickey
News and Information

Contact lenses with metal connectors for electronic circuits were safely worn by rabbits in lab tests. The lenses were manufactured at the microscopic level by researchers at the UW. Contact lenses with metal connectors for electronic circuits were safely worn by rabbits in lab tests.

Movie characters from the Terminator to the Bionic Woman use bionic eyes to zoom in on far-off scenes, have useful facts pop into their field of view, or create virtual crosshairs. Off the screen, virtual displays have been proposed for more practical purposes -- visual aids to help vision-impaired people, holographic driving control panels and even as a way to surf the Web on the go. The device to make this happen may be familiar. Engineers at the UW have for the first time used manufacturing techniques at microscopic scales to combine a flexible, biologically safe contact lens with an imprinted electronic circuit and lights.

"Looking through a completed lens, you would see what the display is generating superimposed on the world outside," said Babak Parviz, a UW assistant professor of electrical engineering. "This is a very small step toward that goal, but I think it's extremely promising." The results were presented today at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' international conference on Micro Electro Mechanical Systems by Harvey Ho, a former graduate student of Parviz's now working at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, Calif. Other co-authors are Ehsan Saeedi and Samuel Kim in the UW's electrical engineering department and Tueng Shen in the UW Medical Center's ophthalmology department.

There are many possible uses for virtual displays. Drivers or pilots could see a vehicle's speed projected onto the windshield. Video game companies could use the contact lenses to completely immerse players in a virtual world without restricting their range of motion. And for communications, people on the go could surf the Internet on a midair virtual display screen that only they would be able to see.

"People may find all sorts of applications for it that we have not thought about. Our goal is to demonstrate the basic technology and make sure it works and that it's safe," said Parviz, who heads a multi-disciplinary UW group that is developing electronics for contact lenses.

The prototype device contains an electric circuit as well as red light-emitting diodes for a display, though it does not yet light up. The lenses were tested on rabbits for up to 20 minutes and the animals showed no adverse effects.

Ideally, installing or removing the bionic eye would be as easy as popping a contact lens in or out, and once installed the wearer would barely know the gadget was there, Parviz said.

Building the lenses was a challenge because materials that are safe for use in the body, such as the flexible organic materials used in contact lenses, are delicate. Manufacturing electrical circuits, however, involves inorganic materials, scorching temperatures and toxic chemicals. Researchers built the circuits from layers of metal only a few nanometers thick, about one thousandth the width of a human hair, and constructed light-emitting diodes one third of a millimeter across. They then sprinkled the grayish powder of electrical components onto a sheet of flexible plastic. The shape of each tiny component dictates which piece it can attach to, a microfabrication technique known as self-assembly. Capillary forces -- the same type of forces that make water move up a plant's roots, and that cause the edge of a glass of water to curve upward -- pull the pieces into position. The prototype contact lens does not correct the wearer's vision, but the technique could be used on a corrective lens, Parviz said. And all the gadgetry won't obstruct a person's view.

"There is a large area outside of the transparent part of the eye that we can use for placing instrumentation," Parviz said. Future improvements will add wireless communication to and from the lens. The researchers hope to power the whole system using a combination of radio-frequency power and solar cells placed on the lens, Parviz said.

A full-fledged display won't be available for a while, but a version that has a basic display with just a few pixels could be operational "fairly quickly," according to Parviz.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and a Technology
Gap Innovation Fund from the UW.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Driverless Cars on Horizon

GM, parts suppliers, university engineers and other automakers all areworking on vehicles that could revolutionize short- and long-distance travel.And Tuesday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas GM Chief ExecutiveRick Wagoner will devote part of his speech to the driverless vehicles. "This is not science fiction," Larry Burns, GM's vice president for research anddevelopment, said in a recent interview.

The most significant obstacles facing the vehicles could be human rather thantechnical: government regulation, liability laws, privacy concerns and people'spassion for the automobile and the control it gives them. Much of the technologyalready exists for vehicles to take the wheel: radar-based cruise control,motion sensors, lane-change warning devices, electronic stability control andsatellite-based digital mapping. And automated vehicles could dramaticallyimprove life on the road, reducing crashes and congestion. If people areinterested. "Now the question is what does society want to do with it?" Burnssaid. "You're looking at these issues of congestion, safety, energy andemissions. Technically there should be no reason why we can't transfer to atotally different world."

GM plans to use an inexpensive computer chip and an antenna to link vehiclesequipped with driverless technologies. The first use likely would be onhighways; people would have the option to choose a driverless mode while theystill would control the vehicle on local streets, Burns said. He said thecompany plans to test driverless car technology by 2015 and have cars on theroad around 2018. Sebastian Thrun, co-leader of the Stanford University teamthat finished second among six teams completing a 60-mile Pentagon-sponsoredrace of driverless cars in November, said GM's goal is technically attainable.But he said he wasn't confident cars would appear in showrooms within a decade."There's some very fundamental, basic regulations in the way of that vision inmany countries," said Thrun, a professor of computer science and electricalengineering. The Defense Department contest, which initially involved 35 teams,showed the technology isn't ready for prime time. One team was eliminated afterits vehicle nearly charged into a building, while another vehicle mysteriouslypulled into a house's carport and parked itself.

Thrun said a key benefit of the technology eventually will be safer roads andreducing the roughly 42,000 U.S. traffic deaths that occur annually - 95 percentof which he said are caused by human mistakes. "We might be able to cut thosenumbers down by a factor of 50 percent," Thrun said. "Just imagine all thefunerals that won't take place." Other challenges include updating vehicle codesand figuring out who would be liable in a crash and how to cope with blown tiresor obstacles in the road. But the systems could be developed to tell motoristsabout road conditions, warn of crashes or stopped vehicles ahead and preventcollisions in intersections. Later versions of driverless technology couldreduce jams by directing vehicles to space themselves close together, almost asif they were cars in a train, and maximize the use of space on a freeway, hesaid. "It will really change society, very much like the transition from a horseto a car," Thrun said. The U.S. government has pushed technology to help driversavoid crashes, most notably electronic stability controls that help preventrollovers. The systems are required on new passenger vehicles starting with the2012 model year. Vehicle-to-vehicle communication and technology allowing carsto talk with highway systems could come next.Still in debate are how toaddress drivers' privacy, whether current vehicles can be retrofitted and howmany vehicles would be need the systems to develop an effective network. "Whereit shakes out remains to be seen but there is no question we see a lot ofpotential there," said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway TrafficSafety Administration.

Associated Press Writer Ken Thomas in Washington contributed to thisreport.(c) 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material maynot be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Brighter LED Lights Could Replace Household Light Bulbs Within Three Years

ScienceDaily (Jan. 10, 2008) - Researchers are developing new technology that could replace the household light-bulb within three years.

Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs), already used in electrical equipment such as computers and mobile phones, are several times more energy efficient than standard light-bulbs. However, because of their structure and material, much of the light in standard LEDs becomes trapped, reducing the brightness of the light and making them unsuitable as the main lighting source in the home.

Now researchers believe they have found a way of introducing a new generation of LEDs into households that are brighter and use even less power than standard energy efficient light-bulbs.

Dr Faiz Rahman, the researcher leading the project at the University of Glasgow, said: "By making microscopic holes on the surface of the LEDs it is possible to extract more light, thus increasing the brightness of the lights without increasing the energy consumption. As yet, LEDs have not been introduced as the standard lighting in homes because the process of making the holes is very time consuming and expensive. However, by using world-class facilities at the University of Glasgow we believe we have found a way of imprinting the holes into billions of LEDs at a far greater speed, but at a much lower cost.

"LEDs not only use less power than current energy efficient light-bulbs but they are much smaller and can last years without needing to be replaced. This means the days of the humble light-bulb could soon be over."

The team of researchers use a technique called nano-imprint lithography to directly imprint the holes, imperceptible to the human eye, onto the LEDs allowing more of the light to escape.

The project is being developed in conjunction with the Institute of Photonics, University of Strathclyde, Mesophotonics Ltd and Sharp Laboratories of Europe, as part of the BERR Technology Programme.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Nanowire battery holds 10 times the charge of existing ones

Stanford researchers have found a way to use silicon nanowires to reinvent the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that power laptops, iPods, video cameras, cell phones, and countless other devices.

The new version, developed through research led by Yi Cui, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, produces 10 times the amount of electricity of existing lithium-ion, known as Li-ion, batteries. A laptop that now runs on battery for two hours could operate for 20 hours, a boon to ocean-hopping business travelers.

"It's not a small improvement," Cui said. "It's a revolutionary development."

The breakthrough is described in a paper, "High-performance lithium battery anodes using silicon nanowires," published online Dec. 16 in Nature Nanotechnology, written by Cui, his graduate chemistry student Candace Chan and five others.

The greatly expanded storage capacity could make Li-ion batteries attractive to electric car manufacturers. Cui suggested that they could also be used in homes or offices to store electricity generated by rooftop solar panels.

"Given the mature infrastructure behind silicon, this new technology can be pushed to real life quickly," Cui said.

The electrical storage capacity of a Li-ion battery is limited by how much lithium can be held in the battery's anode, which is typically made of carbon. Silicon has a much higher capacity than carbon, but also has a drawback.

Silicon placed in a battery swells as it absorbs positively charged lithium atoms during charging, then shrinks during use (i.e., when playing your iPod) as the lithium is drawn out of the silicon. This expand/shrink cycle typically causes the silicon (often in the form of particles or a thin film) to pulverize, degrading the performance of the battery.

Cui's battery gets around this problem with nanotechnology. The lithium is stored in a forest of tiny silicon nanowires, each with a diameter one-thousandth the thickness of a sheet of paper. The nanowires inflate four times their normal size as they soak up lithium. But, unlike other silicon shapes, they do not fracture.

Research on silicon in batteries began three decades ago. Chan explained: "The people kind of gave up on it because the capacity wasn't high enough and the cycle life wasn't good enough. And it was just because of the shape they were using. It was just too big, and they couldn't undergo the volume changes."

Then, along came silicon nanowires. "We just kind of put them together," Chan said.

For their experiments, Chan grew the nanowires on a stainless steel substrate, providing an excellent electrical connection. "It was a fantastic moment when Candace told me it was working," Cui said.

Cui said that a patent application has been filed. He is considering formation of a company or an agreement with a battery manufacturer. Manufacturing the nanowire batteries would require "one or two different steps, but the process can certainly be scaled up," he added. "It's a well understood process."

Synthetic DNA on the Brink of Yielding New Life Forms

It has been 50 years since scientists first created DNA in a test tube, stitching ordinary chemical ingredients together to make life's most extraordinary molecule. Until recently, however, even the most sophisticated laboratories could make only small snippets of DNA -- an extra gene or two to be inserted into corn plants, for example, to help the plants ward off insects or tolerate drought.

Now researchers are poised to cross a dramatic barrier: the creation of life forms driven by completely artificial DNA.

Scientists in Maryland have already built the world's first entirely handcrafted chromosome -- a large looping strand of DNA made from scratch in a laboratory, containing all the instructions a microbe needs to live and reproduce.

In the coming year, they hope to transplant it into a cell, where it is expected to "boot itself up," like software downloaded from the Internet, and cajole the waiting cell to do its bidding. And while the first synthetic chromosome is a plagiarized version of a natural one, others that code for life forms that have never existed before are already under construction.

The cobbling together of life from synthetic DNA, scientists and philosophers agree, will be a watershed event, blurring the line between biological and artificial -- and forcing a rethinking of what it means for a thing to be alive.

"This raises a range of big questions about what nature is and what it could be," said Paul Rabinow, an anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley who studies science's effects on society. "Evolutionary processes are no longer seen as sacred or inviolable. People in labs are figuring them out so they can improve upon them for different purposes."

That unprecedented degree of control over creation raises more than philosophical questions, however. What kinds of organisms will scientists, terrorists and other creative individuals make? How will these self-replicating entities be contained? And who might end up owning the patent rights to the basic tools for synthesizing life?

Some experts are worried that a few maverick companies are already gaining monopoly control over the core "operating system" for artificial life and are poised to become the Microsofts of synthetic biology. That could stifle competition, they say, and place enormous power in a few people's hands.

"We're heading into an era where people will be writing DNA programs like the early days of computer programming, but who will own these programs?" asked Drew Endy, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At the core of synthetic biology's new ascendance are high-speed DNA synthesizers that can produce very long strands of genetic material from basic chemical building blocks: sugars, nitrogen-based compounds and phosphates.

Today a scientist can write a long genetic program on a computer just as a maestro might compose a musical score, then use a synthesizer to convert that digital code into actual DNA. Experiments with "natural" DNA indicate that when a faux chromosome gets plopped into a cell, it will be able to direct the destruction of the cell's old DNA and become its new "brain" -- telling the cell to start making a valuable chemical, for example, or a medicine or a toxin, or a bio-based gasoline substitute.

Unlike conventional biotechnology, in which scientists induce modest genetic changes in cells to make them serve industrial purposes, synthetic biology involves the large-scale rewriting of genetic codes to create metabolic machines with singular purposes.

"I see a cell as a chassis and power supply for the artificial systems we are putting together," said Tom Knight of MIT, who likes to compare the state of cell biology today to that of mechanical engineering in 1864. That is when the United States began to adopt standardized thread sizes for nuts and bolts, an advance that allowed the construction of complex devices from simple, interchangeable parts.

If biology is to morph into an engineering discipline, it is going to need similarly standardized parts, Knight said. So he and colleagues have started a collection of hundreds of interchangeable genetic components they call BioBricks, which students and others are already popping into cells like Lego pieces.

So far, synthetic biology is still semi-synthetic, involving single-cell organisms such as bacteria and yeast that have a blend of natural and synthetic DNA. The cells can reproduce, a defining trait of life. But in many cases that urge has been genetically suppressed, along with other "distracting" biological functions, to maximize productivity.

"Most cells go about life like we do, with the intention to make more of themselves after eating," said John Pierce, a vice president at DuPont in Wilmington, Del., a leader in the field. "But what we want them to do is make stuff we want."

J. Craig Venter, chief executive of Synthetic Genomics in Rockville, knows what he wants his cells to make: ethanol, hydrogen and other exotic fuels for vehicles, to fill a market that has been estimated to be worth $1 trillion.

In a big step toward that goal, Venter has now built the first fully artificial chromosome, a strand of DNA many times longer than anything made by others and laden with all the genetic components a microbe needs to get by.

Details of the process are under wraps until the work is published, probably early next year. But Venter has already shown that he can insert a "natural" chromosome into a cell and bring it to life. If a synthetic chromosome works the same way, as expected, the first living cells with fully artificial genomes could be growing in dishes by the end of 2008.

The plan is to mass-produce a plain genetic platform able to direct the basic functions of life, then attach custom-designed DNA modules that can compel cells to make synthetic fuels or other products.

It will be a challenge to cultivate fuel-spewing microbes, Venter acknowledged. Among other problems, he said, is that unless the fuel is constantly removed, "the bugs will basically pickle themselves."

But the hurdles are not insurmountable. LS9 Inc., a company in San Carlos, Calif., is already using E. coli bacteria that have been reprogrammed with synthetic DNA to produce a fuel alternative from a diet of corn syrup and sugar cane. So efficient are the bugs' synthetic metabolisms that LS9 predicts it will be able to sell the fuel for just $1.25 a gallon.

At a DuPont plant in Tennessee, other semi-synthetic bacteria are living on cornstarch and making the chemical 1,3 propanediol, or PDO. Millions of pounds of the stuff are being spun and woven into high-tech fabrics (DuPont's chief executive wears a pinstripe suit made of it), putting the bug-begotten chemical on track to become the first $1 billion biotech product that is not a pharmaceutical.

Engineers at DuPont studied blueprints of E. coli's metabolism and used synthetic DNA to help the bacteria make PDO far more efficiently than could have been done with ordinary genetic engineering.

"If you want to sell it at a dollar a gallon . . . you need every bit of efficiency you can muster," said DuPont's Pierce. "So we're running these bugs to their limits."

Yet another application is in medicine, where synthetic DNA is allowing bacteria and yeast to produce the malaria drug artemisinin far more efficiently than it is made in plants, its natural source.

Bugs such as these will seem quaint, scientists say, once fully synthetic organisms are brought on line to work 24/7 on a range of tasks, from industrial production to chemical cleanups. But the prospect of a flourishing synbio economy has many wondering who will own the valuable rights to that life.

In the past year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has been flooded with aggressive synthetic-biology claims. Some of Venter's applications, in particular, "are breathtaking in their scope," said Knight. And with Venter's company openly hoping to develop "an operating system for biologically-based software," some fear it is seeking synthetic hegemony.

"We've asked our patent lawyers to be reasonable and not to be overreaching," Venter said. But competitors such as DuPont, he said, "have just blanketed the field with patent applications."

Safety concerns also loom large. Already a few scientists have made viruses from scratch. The pending ability to make bacteria -- which, unlike viruses, can live and reproduce in the environment outside of a living body -- raises new concerns about contamination, contagion and the potential for mischief.

"Ultimately synthetic biology means cheaper and widely accessible tools to build bioweapons, virulent pathogens and artificial organisms that could pose grave threats to people and the planet," concluded a recent report by the Ottawa-based ETC Group, one of dozens of advocacy groups that want a ban on releasing synthetic organisms pending wider societal debate and regulation.

"The danger is not just bio-terror but bio-error," the report says.

Many scientists say the threat has been overblown. Venter notes that his synthetic genomes are spiked with special genes that make the microbes dependent on a rare nutrient not available in nature. And Pierce, of DuPont, says the company's bugs are too spoiled to survive outdoors.

"They are designed to grow in a cosseted environment with very high food levels," Pierce said. "You throw this guy out on the ground, he just can't compete. He's toast."

"We've heard that before," said Jim Thomas, ETC Group's program manager, noting that genes engineered into crops have often found their way into other plants despite assurances to the contrary. "The fact is, you can build viruses, and soon bacteria, from downloaded instructions on the Internet," Thomas said. "Where's the governance and oversight?"

In fact, government controls on trade in dangerous microbes do not apply to the bits of DNA that can be used to create them. And while some industry groups have talked about policing the field themselves, the technology is quickly becoming so simple, experts say, that it will not be long before "bio hackers" working in garages will be downloading genetic programs and making them into novel life forms.

"The cat is out of the bag," said Jay Keasling, chief of synthetic biology at the University of California at Berkeley.

Andrew Light, an environmental ethicist at the University of Washington in Seattle, said synthetic biology poses a conundrum because of its double-edged ability to both wreak biological havoc and perhaps wean civilization from dirty 20th-century technologies and petroleum-based fuels.

"For the environmental community, I think this is going to be a really hard choice," Light said.

Depending on how people adjust to the idea of man-made life -- and on how useful the first products prove to be -- the field could go either way, Light said.

"It could be that synthetic biology is going to be like cellphones: so overwhelming and ubiquitous that no one notices it anymore. Or it could be like abortion -- the kind of deep disagreement that will not go away."

The question, if the abortion model holds, is which side of the synthetic biology debate will get to call itself "pro-life."

By Rick Weiss Washington Post Staff Writer Monday, December 17, 2007