A chip’s best friend


The good thing about using silicon in electronic components is that it is abundant and easy to dope with other materials to help control how electrons flow through it. The bad thing is that it becomes unstable at high temperatures, say above 150C. Diamonds are also pretty easy to dope, and can handle temperatures up to 400C with ease, but natural diamonds are lousy with impurities that can ruin electric flow. And man-made ones are comprised of many small crystals whose borders likewise interfere with a circuit’s feng shui. But New Scientist reports today that researchers have developed a synthetic diamond film comprised of a single crystal that may be terrific for chips and such. “In the short term, the new diamond electronic components are likely to be too expensive to replace everyday silicon chips, which in any case work well for many applications. But diamond components may be useful in specialised applications,” the magazine says. Likely uses include flat panel displays, big radar systems and space craft.

Double dose of bioterrorism news

THOMPSON SAYS FOOD SUPPLY VULNERABLE TO ATTACK
The number of U.S. food inspectors has risen over the last year, but Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said the nation is still vulnerable to an attack on its food supply. It was clear even before Sept. 11 that the Food and Drug Administration’s inspection system had big holes, the Associated Press reports, with 150 inspectors together examining less than one percent of the nation’s food. After last fall, Congress opened the purse strings enough to hire 750 additional inspectors, and new technology has made some inspections faster. But Thompson said danger remains. “I still believe that is the area we are subject to a terrorist attack in the future and one that could cause problems.” In perhaps the most shocking part of Thompson’s coments, he blamed the previously low number of inspectors on a vindictive Congress that punished the agency for former FDA Commissioner David Kessler’s efforts to regulate the tobacco industry.

Meanwhile…
DUST-SIZED CHIPS TO COMBAT BIOTERRORISM
Silicon chips the size of dust particles that can quickly detect biological and chemical agents have been developed by University of California, San Diego scientists. As reported by HealthScoutNews, the versatile chips can identify substances that can be dissolved in drinking water or sprayed into the air during a bioterrorist attack. “The idea is that you can have something that’s as small as a piece of dust with some intelligence built into it, so that it could be inconspicuously stuck to paint on a wall or to the side of a truck or dispersed into a cloud of gas,” UCSD researcher Michael Sailor said. Each chip is barcoded, and can be read using a laser detector to see what if any reaction has occurred. “When the dust recognizes what kinds of chemicals or biological agents are present, that information can be read … to tell us if the cloud that’s coming toward us is filled with anthrax bacteria or if the tank of drinking water into which we’ve sprinkled the dust is toxic,” Sailor said.

Bioterrorism threat ruins even group showers

Chalk up mass-washings as another activity wrecked by the spectre of terrorism. Thirty years ago, a call for volunteers to strip to their skivvies, as the coy Washington Post puts it, would have signaled some post-Summer of Love fun. These days, it refers to a far more sober scrubbing: the debut of a new $350,000 chemical, biological and radiation decontamination facility at the Inova Fairfax Hospital in northern Virginia.

Let’s get small, redux

Intel is set to disclose some of its plans in nanotechnology, sure to be key to the company’s chips for decades to come. As reported by CNET’s News.com, Sunlin Chou, senior VP of technology and manufacturing, will discuss some of the plans next week at the Intel Developer Forum in San Jose. Topping the topics likely to be covered: Carbon nanotubes and multigate transistors. Nanotubes are strings of carbon atoms tightly bonded together that show promise in manufacturing everything from tennis rackets to electronics. In computer chips, they can theoretically be used to replace the wispy metal wires that now define a chip’s circuitry. That could make processors smaller and cheaper. Multigate transistors, meanwhile, are a way of addressing the conundrum faced by all chipmakers: The more powerful processors become, the more electricity must flow through them. But as chips shrink in size, the extremely small transistors that control this flow are growing overloaded, something like hooking up a fire hose to a Waterpik nozzle, as CNET puts it. One way around that is to give each transistor more than one gate, an approach that IBM is using in some of its products already. Although analysts say they doubt Intel will copy this entirely, the company likely has a similar approach up its sleeve.

Hunting: No role in controlling fox population

In Britain a central rationale in support of fox hunting has been challenged by a scientific study. Hunting advocates have long claimed that fox hunts keep the fox population from exploding, protecting livestock. But scientists from the University of Bristol said today that banning fox hunting would not cause an increase in the fox population. This announcement adds some concrete support to a debate that has been waging for years between hunting defenders and animal welfare campaigners. The scientists got the opportunity to test assumptions about the effects a ban would have because of foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks in Britain in 2001 that led to a ten-month ban on fox hunting. The British government is currently in a six-month period of consultation in search of a compromise on fox hunting between the House of Commons, who earlier this year voted for a full ban, and the House of Lords, who voted for licensed hunting.

Baby bye bye bye

Oh well. It looks like ‘N Syncer Lance Bass won’t be making a trip into space after all. After failing to pony up the $20 million needed to participate in a trip to the International Space Station (ISS) after several deadline extensions, the pop star was asked to leave Russia’s cosmonaut training program, according to the Russian Space Agency. The Russians have a cargo container ready to go in Bass’s place. Bass had been training for the trip since July and was scheduled to go up to the space station by rocket on October 28. For a look at what Bass will be missing, visit NASA’s SkyWatch site to find out when the station can be viewed flying over your town.

Sine o’ the times

Proving again that clever sloth trumps dull industriousness, a mischievous group of transistors at a British university has spontaneously converted itself into — of all things — a radio receiver.
No word yet if the transistors are next planning to materialize as headphones or a graphic equalizer. New Scientist reports that the recreating of century-old technology occurred at the University of Sussex in Brighton during an experiment that was unusual in its own right. Researchers took transistors, added an evolutionary computer program and were expecting to end up with an oscillator — a repeating sign wave signal.
Instead of forming their own waves, though, the transistors utilized a part on a nearby circuit board as an antenna and began receiving the oscillations from an adjacent computer. Somewhere out in the ether, Guglielmo Marconi ought to be proud. And slackers everywhere, too.

Dell embraces clusters

No one will begrudge Dell Computer its success in the marketing and sales realms. When it comes to getting companies and consumers to buy PCs, Dell sets the standard. But for such an accomplished firm, Dell has lacked the reputation for innovation and design smarts that companies like Apple, Hewlett-Packard and IBM have built. Apparently aware of that, wanting to make a change and still looking for the shortest possible path to a buck, Dell announced it will set up the Dell Centers for Research Excellence, a program that CNET’s News.com reports will acknowledge breakthroughs in PC clustering and take part in research with chosen universities. Clustering, for the uninitiated, is the process of linking several, sometimes hundreds of off-the-shelf PCs into one big computing leviathan. To kick off its effort, Dell unveiled Tuesday with the State University of New York at Buffalo a cluster of 2,008 Dell PowerEdge servers running Red Hat Linux. SUNY Buffalo researchers will use the cluster to study the structure and orientation of human proteins, CNET says, an important step in finding cures for many diseases. The Buffalo cluster is one of the largest of its kind, and in terms of sheer computing power makes the set-up one of the 500 fastest computers in the world.

Bioterrorism: Inexpensive, and built to stay that way

The threat of bioterrorism is growing as more countries try to develop biological weapons, a CIA analyst told members of the Secretary of Health and Human Services’ Council on Public Health Preparedness. “Biological warfare is an attractive option . . . because it’s relatively inexpensive to develop,” said Kimberly Stergulz, an analyst at the CIA’s Weapons, Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Center. A result, she said, is that countries such as Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya and Syria, and a growing number of non-state groups, are pursuing the capability. As reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the CIA employee told the council that developing a biological weapons program could cost about $10 million, compared with $100 million to develop chemical weapon capability or $2 billion for nuclear capability. Stergulz presented the information at the first meeting of the council, a group of 21 health specialists and scientists who will advise the federal government on different aspects of potential public health emergencies.

Th!nk we made a mistake

Ford’s foray into the realm of pure electric cars tanked this week, as the company has decided to discontinue the golf-cart sized “vehicle.” A Ford spokesman blamed poor customer demand and lack of government support; ridiculous design was not mentioned. Ford sunk nearly $125 million into the failed project before pulling the plug. Get one last look at the “future” here.