Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

You can look at Moore’s law in more than one way. You can see it in its literal sense, applied to computers doubling in speed every 18 months or so. Or you can see it as a metaphor for any type of technology that sees regular increases in speed or power. The last few days have seen announcements of several new technologies, variously falling into one or even both of the camps. Strap yourself in for a new stage in the evolution of technology.

First there is solar power. Earlier this year economist Paul Krugman was slated by those in the know when he suggested that solar power was seeing its power increase at a rate that was commensurate with Moore’s Law. The mistake Krugman made was to not realise there is a theoretical limit to solar power. It is called the Shockley-Queisser limit named after William Shockley and Hans Queisser, who proposed that the theoretical maximum efficiency of a solar panel is 34 per cent. In short, there is a just a physical limit to how much energy solar power can generate, and we appear to be pretty close to that limit.

Enter stage right the Nano-Science Center at the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark, which is connected to the University of Copenhagen. It has been working on nano-wires, or what some might call miracle technology.

A nanometre is a billionth of a metre. O.1 of a nanometre is the size of a helium atom. Nano technology is engineering at an incredibly small scale. Nano-wires is an exciting application of nanotechnology.

“It turns out,” or so suggests an announcement on the University of Copenhagen web site, “ that the nanowires naturally concentrate the sun’s rays into a very small area in the crystal by up to a factor 15. Because the diameter of a nanowire crystal is smaller than the wavelength of the light coming from the sun it can cause resonances in the intensity of light in and around nanowires. Thus, the resonances can give a concentrated sunlight, where the energy is converted, which can be used to give a higher conversion efficiency of the sun’s energy.”

The announcement continues: “The typical efficiency limit – the so-called ’Shockley-Queisser Limit’ – is a limit, which for many years has been a landmark for solar cells efficiency among researchers, but now it seems that it may be increased.” The new break-through”, continues the announcements “will have a major impact on the development of solar cells, exploitation of nanowire solar rays and perhaps the extraction of energy at international level. However, it will take some years before production of solar cells consisting of nanowires becomes a reality.”

So that’s Moore’s law at work in solar energy.

But the University of Copenhagen announcement also made reference to nanowires having potential use in quantum computers.

This brings us to Moore’s Law in its original meaning, relating to computers doubling in power every 18 months or so.

Enter stage left IBM. Big Blue has just picked up the Swiss Tell Award for investment in new nanotechnology. IBM stated recently: “Carbon nanotubes and scanning probes derived from the atomic force microscope – cousin of the scanning tunnelling microscope – show particular promise in enabling dramatically improved circuits and data storage devices.” So, in English, the words to note are improved circuits and data storage devices. In short, IBM is working on nano technology to make computers much faster. We may or may not be close to reaching some kind of limit to computer power based on traditional silicon type technology. But IBM is exploring alternatives.

Big Blue put it this way: “IBM’s research into nano-scale structures that self-assemble may one day obviate the need to ’hand-position’ atoms. Nanotechnology will allow the design and control of the structure of an object on all length scales, from the atomic to the macroscopic enabling more efficient and vastly less expensive manufacturing processes and providing the hardware foundation for future information technology.”

And finally there is a company called Hyperoptic which is set to offer broadband speeds of one gigabit a second to some locations in London. That’s ten times faster than the fastest services from Virgin Media and BT, which are themselves around ten times faster than the service most of us are used to.

Some economists are cynical about the effect technology is having on the economy. Their cynicism may or may not be justified up to now. But the point is that – thanks to Moore’s Law in the sense being used here – technology is set to have an ever more profound impact on our lives and the economy.  This is both exciting and frightening, with unpredictable consequences for jobs, and the way in which wealth is distributed. Economists, in making their forecast for the next few years, are totally failing to factor this in.

©2013 Investment and Business News.

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You may have read about the latest miracle product – graphene. The scientists who have done the most celebrated work on this are Andre Geim, a Russian born British/Dutch scientist, and Sir Konstantin Sergeevich “Kostya” Novose, a Russian/British scientist – both from the University of Manchester. Although they won the Nobel Prize for their work in 2010, the media bandwagon has only just taken off.

So what is graphene? Mr Geim told ‘Nature’: “It’s the thinnest possible material you can imagine. It also has the largest surface-to-weight ratio: with one gram of graphene you can cover several football pitches (in Manchester, you know, we measure surface area in football pitches). It’s also the strongest material ever measured; it’s the stiffest material we know; it’s the most stretchable crystal. That’s not the full list of superlatives, but it’s pretty impressive.”

It has applications in the pharmaceutical business, and maybe one day will be the stuff that computer screens are made of. Screens made of graphene will be so flexible you will be able to fold them in half, and then again, and then again.

It is tempting to say it will transform the world, but there are lots of new products and designs out there at the moment that have the potential to change the world.

And since most of the great break-throughs in our understanding of this material had a strong British connection you might say it represents the pinnacle of British achievement. Except you might retort it might not even be the pinnacle of achievement at the University of Manchester. Another team of researchers at the university have developed what they claim to be the most advanced molecule machine in the world; that’s a man-made molecule that can make man-made molecules   See: The molecule that makes molecules and three stages of Darwinian evolution

So which is the best innovation, and which best illustrates British ingenuity? It is like asking: which was the best miracle, feeding the 5,000 from two fishes or five loaves?

But there is a puzzle.

Why is that so few of the patents related to graphene are held by British companies? There are 2,204 Chinese patent entities for graphene; 1,160 US entities, but just 54 British entities.

Well in 2010, in an interview with ‘Nature’, Mr Geim said: “We considered patenting; we prepared a patent and it was nearly filed. Then I had an interaction with a big, multinational electronics company. I approached a guy at a conference and said, ‘We’ve got this patent coming up, would you be interested in sponsoring it over the years?’ It’s quite expensive to keep a patent alive for 20 years. The guy told me, ‘We are looking at graphene, and it might have a future in the long term. If after ten years we find it’s really as good as it promises, we will put a hundred patent lawyers on it to write a hundred patents a day, and you will spend the rest of your life, and the gross domestic product of your little island, suing us.’” That’s a direct quote.

He continued: “I considered this arrogant comment, and I realized how useful it was. There was no point in patenting graphene at that stage. You need to be specific: you need to have a specific application and an industrial partner. Unfortunately, in many countries, including this one, people think that applying for a patent is an achievement. In my case it would have been a waste of taxpayers’ money.” See: Andre Geim: in praise of grapheme

This column has been pretty critical of the whole concept behind patents before. See: Time to put an end to patents?   And: The new industrial revolution needs collaboration and perhaps fewer patents

If it could be shown that patents encourage innovation then let’s have more of them.

More often than not they hold it back, and if Mr Geim is to be believed, perhaps they take money from innovators and give it to those whose contribution is modest.

©2012 Investment and Business News.

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James Martin is one of those futurologists. In his book ‘The meaning of the 21st Century” (a very good book it is too, if you are interested in that sort of thing), he suggested that there are three stages of Darwinian evolution. Stage one is ‘primary evolution’: the evolutionary process described by Darwin. It relates to the evolution of living species by natural selection. This stage is slow: it requires mutation to DNA to introduce change; this is the product of chance. Stage two is secondary evolution, which relates to cultural evolution and of ideas themselves, culminating perhaps in the ability to manipulate DNA. This second stage is faster than the first, because it builds on what we have already learned. It works by selecting and favouring ideas developed through deliberation. The third stage is what Martin calls “tertiary evolution”, which is a phase we may be entering now. This occurs when intelligent beings learn how to automate evolution itself. To begin with, we see computer programmes built around artificial selection which follow parameters set down by a human creator. In time this process will accelerate, becoming very swift indeed.

Okay, so let’s take a unit of measurement. To measure stage one evolution our yardstick needs to be about one million years in length, or given that Homo Sapiens (that’s me and, unless you are a very gifted chimpanzee, probably you) have been around for 150,000 years or so the yardstick may need to be 100,000 years long.

For stage two, the yardstick may need to be say a century in length, or perhaps a decade.

For stage three, the unit of measurement might be months, days or even hours.

Just imagine that. Evolution that is so fast we can record significant changes in hours.

It means that once stage three is underway the world will change incredibly quickly. You dare not be cynical, and wait for the evidence of your own eyes because then it will be too late. When we see change this rapidly, the moment we perceive that we have moved to stage three in evolution, change will become too fast to understand. We have to anticipate this in advance.

See it in terms of the super cooling of water. When water is pure, it may not change to ice until it reaches temperatures of around minus 40 degrees. But once it hits minus 40 degrees, the freezing process is instantaneous.

So what has all that got to do with the here and now?

Consider this piece of news from the University of Manchester. Chemists there have discovered how to make molecules from molecules.

Professor David Leigh FRS and his team in the School of Chemistry at the university claim to have developed the most advanced molecular machine of its type in the world.

Professor Leigh commented: “Such machines could ultimately lead to the process of making molecules becoming much more efficient and cost effective. This will benefit all sorts of manufacturing areas as many manmade products begin at a molecular level. For example, we’re currently modifying our machine to make drugs such as penicillin.”

You will need pretty good eyesight to see the professor’s machine, for it is just a few nanometres long. (A nanometre is one billionth of a metre).  And it is based on the ribosome, which is in all living cells.

So far, so unfinished. The good professor says: “The ribosome can put together 20 building blocks a second until up to 150 are linked. So far we have only used our machine to link together 4 blocks and it takes 12 hours to connect each block. But you can massively parallel the assembly process: We are already using a million million million (1018) of these machines working in parallel in the laboratory to build molecules.”

Professor Leigh continues: “The next step is to start using the machine to make sophisticated molecules with more building blocks. The potential is for it to be able to make molecules that have never been seen before.”

But the truth is that this is a synthetic molecule that can build synthetic molecules. And when we make nano-factories that make nano-factories without little need for human intervention the process of evolution can become automated and it can reach stage 3.

Will innovation such as this development seen at the University of Manchester change the world this year?  No. Will they change the world next year, or this decade? Probably not.

Will innovations such as this change the world during the lifetime of most readers of this article? Probably. Make sure you are ready.

©2012 Investment and Business News.

Investment and Business News is a succinct, sometimes amusing often thought provoking and always informative email newsletter. Our readers say they look forward to receiving it, and so will you. Sign-up here