Prototype

Straight from the lab: technology’s first draft.

Faster than Flash

“Flash” memory uses so little power that designers have built it into hundreds of portable devices, from digital cameras to handheld computers. But flash memory has its flaws: it’s slow at storing new data, and it wears out after only about a million read/write operations. Now Intel is testing a new kind of memory chip that it says will outpace and outlast flash-and still save power.

The new chip is based on work pioneered by inventor Stanford Ovshinsky, CEO of Rochester Hills, MI-based Energy Conversion Devices. Heat from an electric current switched by a diode alters the electrical resistance of tiny pockets of a germanium-tellurium-antimony alloy on the chip; pockets with changed or unchanged resistance represent digital ones and zeroes. Intel’s latest test version of the chip stores four megabits, lasts through a million times as many operations as flash memory, and writes data a thousand times faster-almost as fast as conventional memory. While Intel researchers say it will be three to five years before the technology finds its way into products, future cameras, handhelds, cell phones and other devices equipped with the new memory could store digital information much faster and more reliably-and might be cheaper, too, since the new memory can be etched onto a silicon wafer right alongside other circuitry.

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Fewer Bits, Better Code

As new security regulations pile more tedium onto the airline boarding process, a Burlington, MA, startup called Ntru hopes its encryption technology can help keep queues flowing. The company’s software lets makers of embedded microchips incorporate data encryption directly into their silicon. The company’s algorithms use eight-bit numbers, versus the several-hundred-bit numbers employed by today’s standard encryption systems. These smaller numbers mean the technology can encrypt data faster; yet the company claims it can provide the same level of protection. The software could eventually underpin secure luggage tags and wireless code readers that authenticate passengers and link them to their baggage. It may also help inexpensive chips lock unauthorized users out of cell phones, pagers or payment cards. Ntru’s technology should be on the market by year’s end.

Smarter Storage

Permabit, a Cambridge, MA, startup, is bringing software to market that could revolutionize the way organizations store and access data. The software automatically distributes files among computers at different company locations, with just enough duplication to assure business continuity in case of physical disaster. When someone modifies a file, the system resaves only those sections of it that have changed, lowering the demand for transmission bandwidth. The data is encrypted such that it is impossible to trace to its creator-protecting the system administrator from potential legal liability and maintaining user privacy. Designed to provide backup storage as well as management of “live” data, the system will allow companies to dispense with slow and expensive storage tapes. The technology is expected on the market late this summer.

Vibrational Parasites

The typical building never stops shaking. Air conditioners, heaters and even computer fans vibrate the walls, floors and ceilings. University of California, Berkeley, researchers are working on tiny wireless devices that scavenge this continual buzz as a source of power. The devices attach to surfaces throughout a building to monitor conditions such as airflow and temperature, and contain transceivers that send data to a central computer that can adjust the climate.

Better than batteries because it doesn’t run down, and more practical than wall wiring, the device’s power scavenger uses a piezoelectric material and a weight attached to a springy cantilever (photo) to convert mechanical pressure into electricity. Berkeley mechanical engineering graduate student Shad Roundy has built quarter-sized scavengers that generate 70 to 80 microwatts-enough to run a sensor and transceiver-and aims to demonstrate more-powerful devices by year-end.

Switchable Genes

Many genes that exist naturally in the body turn on and off when needed; otherwise they would crank out superfluous proteins nonstop. But the artificial genes that are injected to treat disease generally are simpler constructs and are always “on,” starting protein production soon after they reach the bloodstream. Now, researchers at SRI International in Menlo Park, CA, have constructed an artificial gene with an “off” switch.

SRI’s experimental gene directs the production of proteins responsible for growing new blood vessels. Persistent low levels of oxygen in cardiac muscle-often an early warning of clogged blood vessels that can cause heart attack-turn the gene on, initiating the production of blood vessels. Over time, these new vessels remedy the oxygen shortage. When the oxygen level returns to normal, the gene switches “off.” SRI has secured two patents on the unique DNA sequence that acts as the gene’s switch.

Tiny Tags

Radio frequency identification tags are popping up in everything from windshield toll-paying units to inventory-tracking aids on warehouse pallets. A 250-micrometer-wide tag developed at Sarnoff in Princeton, NJ, is the smallest ever (photo). Its antenna is etched in silicon alongside photocells, logic and 50 bits of memory-enough to code billions of different ID numbers. Costing just pennies each, these microtags broadcast their IDs after receiving a burst of laser energy. Princeton-based PharmaSeq, which hired Sarnoff to develop the device, will initially use it for medical diagnostics. PharmaSeq coats the microtags with DNA sequences from known diseases, then mixes the tags with blood samples labeled with fluorescent dyes. Tags are routed through an optical reader; the ID numbers of any glowing tags provide a diagnosis. Sarnoff’s Jonathan Schepps sees the tags being used to track small, valuable items, like money or gems-or to “covertly label things.”

Breaking the Ice

Imagine a winter in New Hampshire without ever having to scrape ice from your windshield. Dartmouth College engineering professor Victor Petrenko has developed a deicing technology that runs off a car battery-potentially making that bit of cold drudgery a thing of the past. Embedded in a car windshield are electrodes made of indium tin oxide (a transparent conductor). A power converter transforms the car battery’s direct current into high-frequency alternating current, which heats the ice much the way microwaves heat water. Unlike conventional windshield defrosters, Petrenko’s system heats just the ice, not the windshield. The system is much faster and more effective than conventional defrosters and uses a tenth the energy. Petrenko is developing deicers using similar technology for the interiors of freezers. Dartmouth has licensed the deicing technology to Torvec, a Pittsford, NY, developer of off-road tracked vehicles; vehicles using the deicer should be on the market within two years.

Cool Rays

X-ray machines have changed little over the century: a metal filament heated to 1,500 C in a glass vacuum tube shoots out electrons that hit a piece of metal, generating the radiation that travels through flesh but not bone. Physicist Otto Zhou at the University of North Carolina has come up with a cooler way to make x-rays. Zhou replaces the filament with carbon nanotubes-large, pipelike carbon molecules. Exposure to a weak electric field causes the nanotubes to emit electrons, which in turn produce x-rays the conventional way and make images such as the one shown. Because the whole process can take place at room temperature, there’s no need for heavy equipment to heat up the electron source. Nanotube-based x-ray machines can therefore be much smaller than conventional ones, making portable devices possible. To commercialize the technology, Zhou cofounded Applied Nanotechnologies in Chapel Hill, NC. The company aims to have its first product on the market within two years.

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