- latest science and technology news stories

This blog discusses the experiences of a consulting professional currently working at EmPower Research, a firm that provides decision support services to clients through offices in NYC, San Francisco and Bangalore, India.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Future of Personal Transport - A Car-Plane?

Heading skyward to beat gridlock
By Maggie Shiels Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

The solution to gridlock on our overcrowded roads is to take to the air in a plane-car hybrid that will revolutionise the way society works. Could flying become a daily means of transportation?

This vision of the future twenty years hence was revealed at the 2008 Electric Aircraft Symposium held a stone's throw from San Francisco airport in California. Plotting the next frontier in green technology was Richard Jones, a technical fellow at Boeing Phantom Works.
He said "Today I am talking about making aviation available to everyone as a daily means of transportation. Transportation changes society."

"When they dumped the horse and cart people took over two continents. 150 years ago steam turned America into a nation. Today 50 per cent of the world lives in urban areas thanks to the car. And in the last 50 years, the aviation industry has made one world thanks to the airplane."

Future transportation
When your 100mpg (miles per gallon) car is stuck in traffic and a 100mpg airplane whizzes overhead, you're going to be jealous. Richard JonesBoeing's research group is designing a hybrid aimed at travelling up to 300 miles at a time. It will use precision navigation systems that would allow the average 'driver cum pilot' to fly without special training thanks to a computerised 'flight instructor' built into the cockpit. This Mr Jones believes could make the compact plane easier to drive than a car. "People will probably be reading a newspaper rather than flying the vehicles."
He said that they will be powered using electricity and /or batteries making them the "cleanest transportation of the future."
This sneak peak at the world twenty years from now was eagerly welcomed by the assembled group of engineers, scientists, venture capitalists and chief executives who were brought together by the CAFE Foundation, a non profit organisation that promotes personal air travel.
The organisation's President Brien Seeley said that there were good sound reasons for believing that such a hybrid will be an everyday part of life. And with an estimated 1.2 billion cars expected to be clogging up the roads by 2030 he said that it is a no brainer.
"When your 100mpg (miles per gallon) car is stuck in traffic and a 100mpg airplane whizzes overhead, you're going to be jealous."

Personal aviation
The symposium was told that the environmental need to find an alternative to the combustion engine is long overdue and growing ever more urgent as fuel prices top $120 a barrel and passengers get hit with crippling surcharges for taking to the air. Dr Ben Santer who is a physicist with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory told BBC News "We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are changing the chemistry of the earth's atmosphere by burning fossil fuels in cars and airplanes." "If we don't want to have really serious changes to our climate then we have to figure out other ways of doing business."
The CAFE Foundation believes the solution is obvious. Mr Seeley told the BBC "The electric aircraft promises to solve these problems and produce a real enlightenment of aviation with new technology and a rebirth of popular general aviation and personal aviation travel."
But there is no reason to wait for Boeing's hybrid vehicle according to a Slovenian company called Pipistrel. By the end of the year it plans to deliver the world's first commercially produced, two seater electric aircraft to customers.
Their Taurus Electro can climb to 6,000 feet after taking off using a 30-kilowatt motor.
Recharging the glider's lithium-polymer battery is meant to take about as long as charging a cell phone. And weather permitting, the glider can travel 1,000 miles a day. Pipistrel's head of research and development Tine Tomazic says they already have over a dozen orders for the plane. "We are doing it now. We are flying the world's first two seater self launching glider powered by electrical means, powered by batteries." "We have seen tremendous demand from existing owners who fly the internal combustion powered version and we think the market potential for the Taurus Electro is just huge."

Efficient plane
That of course is open to question given that the sticker price for the basic model starts at around $132,000 or £67,000. For the time being it's probably fair to say that the market for the Taurus Electra and similar planes is limited to enthusiasts and those with money to spend. People like Google founder Larry Page who was also at the event and owns his own aircraft.
But in order to generate some buzz about electric planes outside of this cosy coterie of 'plane nuts' CAFE is teaming up with NASA to launch a 'Green Prize' competition. It will award $50,000 for a craft that achieves at least 100 miles per hour and the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon. Supporters of such competitions hope it will help convince people that air travel could become the greenest form of transportation. Speaking to the BBC, Mark Moore of NASA Langely said "If such an aircraft can achieve greater efficiencies than being stuck in gridlock or even on commercial airlines then we will have something to get excited about. Boeing's Mr Jones agrees and says making personal aviation the norm is the ultimate goal. "It will change society, the way we work, the way we live, the way cities grow."

Sky's the limit
And while it may take some time to persuade the public at large that they will be whizzing through the air on a vehicle that is part car and part plane, investors were being told that getting on the bandwagon early will pay off in the long run. Adam Grosser of venture capital firm Foundation Capital sponsored the event and not unsurprisingly believes personal electric aircraft is a money winner. "It is vitally important to catalyse an industry like this. A lot of the stuff you are hearing may take a while to come to fruition and we are willing to wait patiently and invest prudently behind that vision. But it will take off and the sky's the limit when it does."

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Amazing New Invention in Electronics Noted

Scientists have been looking for the devices for 40 years
Details of an entirely new kind of electronic device, which could make chips smaller and far more efficient, have been outlined by scientists.
The new components, described by scientists at Hewlett-Packard, are known as "memristors".
The devices were proposed 40 years ago but have only recently been fabricated, the team wrote in the journal Nature.
They have already been used to build novel transistors - tiny switches that are the building blocks of all chips.
"Now we have this type of device we have a broader palette with which to paint our circuits," Professor Stan Williams, one of the team, told the BBC last year.
Total recall
Memristors were first proposed by Professor Leon Chua, a scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1971
They are the "fourth" basic building block of circuits, after capacitors, resistors and inductors.
"I never thought I'd live long enough to see this happen," Professor Chua told the Associated Press.
"I'm thrilled because it's almost like vindication. Something I did is not just in my imagination, it's fundamental."
The memristors are so called because they have the ability to "remember" the amount of charge that has flowed through them after the power has been switched off.
This could allow researchers to build new kinds of computer memory that would would not require powering up.
Today, most PCs use dynamic random access memory (DRAM) which loses data when the power is turned off.
But a computer built with memristors could allow PCs that start up instantly, laptops that retain sessions after the battery dies, or mobile phones that can last for weeks without needing a charge.
"If you turn on your computer it will come up instantly where it was when you turned it off," Professor Williams told Reuters.
"That is a very interesting potential application, and one that is very realistic."
'Industry anathema'
Professor Williams and his team have already shown that by putting two memristors together - a configuration called a crossbar latch - it could do the job of a transistor.

The team has built hybrid circuits using memristors and transistors
"A cross bar latch has the type of functionality you want from a transistor but it's working with very different physics," he explained.
Intriguingly, these devices can also be made much smaller than conventional transistor.
"And as they get smaller they get better," he said.
As a result, the new devices could play a key part in the future of the electronics industry, as it relentlessly pursues Moore's Law.
This industry axiom, first stated by Gordon Moore, co-founder of chip-maker Intel, states that the number of transistors it is possible to squeeze in to a chip for a fixed cost doubles every two years.
However, according to some, it may be some time before the device is widely used.
"Even to consider an alternative to the transistor is anathema to many device engineers, and the memristor concept will have a steep slope to climb towards acceptance," wrote Drs James Tour and Tao Heare of Rice University, Houston in an accompanying article in Nature.
They said that some in the electronics industry would only accept the use of memristors "after the demonstration of a well-functioning, large-scale array of these densely packed devices".
"When that happens, the race towards smaller devices will proceed at full steam."