Stories tagged Scientific Enterprise


There's lots of buzz (normal buzz, not our patented Science Buzz) on the 'net today about the "Bloom Box" featured on 60 Minutes this weekend.

It seemed to me to be a pretty junky interview and feature, but I'm intrigued nonetheless; the Bloom Box is supposed to be an efficient new fuel cell that would allow electricity to be produced at the site where it will be used, eliminating transmission losses, and efficiently converting fuel to energy.

It runs on hydrocarbons, but it sounds like it's pretty omnivorous as to the kinds it can use (so natural gas works, but so would carbon-neutral biogas, etc), and it presumably emits CO2, only much less of it than traditional power generation. (The interview was extremely fuzzy on that aspect, but the Atlantic's article about Bloom from a month ago says that the device does release CO2.)

Something like 20 companies in California are already testing Bloom Box units, and the people making them to have attracted a ton of money, so the technology doesn't look quite so pie in the sky as a lot of other energy inventions we're supposed to get excited about.

The guy behind the Bloom Box believes that, inside of a decade, you'll be able to have one in your basement for something like $3000 dollars. More expensive than a used Super Nintendo, but, as far as major appliances go, pretty darn cheap. We'll see about that, sir... The featured skeptic seems to think that, if we see it at all, we'll see it coming from a company like GE, not Bloom Energy.

Here's the 60 Minutes piece:

Watch CBS News Videos Online

The whole operation has been kept pretty secret until recently, and supposedly there will be more details coming soon.

But until then... What do you think? Ho-hum? Hoax? Or is this something to be excited about?


Smallest LASER ever

Nanolaser: Image shows the nanolaser design: a gold core surrounded by a glasslike shell filled with green dye
Nanolaser: Image shows the nanolaser design: a gold core surrounded by a glasslike shell filled with green dyeCourtesy Birck Nanotechnology Center, Purdue University

Lasers, now used in CD and DVD players and to read prices at the checkout counter, were first developed about fifty years ago. They work by resonating light between two reflectors. They cannot be made smaller than half a wavelength of light, though (about 200 nanometers).


Researchers have now figured a way to force a sphere of only 44 nanometers to emit laser light (more than 1 million could fit inside a red blood cell). These nano-lasers are called spasers which stands for "surface plasmon amplification by stimulated emission of radiation".
When light is pumped onto the sphere, the surface coating generates a form of radiation called surface plasmons.

To act like lasers, they require a "feedback system" that causes the surface plasmons to oscillate back and forth so that they gain power and can be emitted as light.Plasmon resonances are capable of squeezing optical frequency oscillations into a nanoscopic cavity to enable a true nanolaser
Purdue University

Nanophotonics and nanoplasmonics

This new area of technology sometimes called nanophotonics or nanoplasmonics will enable better microscopes, smaller computer memories, faster computer circuits that use light instead of electrons, and many more yet to be imagined applications.

Read the research papers

This current work on spasers is published in the journal Nature: Applied physics: Lasers go nano
Demonstration of a spaser-based nanolaser


A picture is worth how many words?

Effective illustration
Effective illustrationCourtesy Da Vinci

When attempting to communicate the world of science, visualization often works better than words. Illustrations are a quick and effective means for communicating science, engineering and technology to an often scientifically challenged population.

Competition makes us better

The National Science Foundation and the journal, Science, created the International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge to encourage the continued growth toward this journalistic goal.

Judges appointed by the National Science Foundation and the journal Science will select winners in each of five categories: photographs, illustrations, informational graphics, interactive media and non-interactive media.

Want to see the winners?

This link will take you to the 2004-2009 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge winners. I am also embedding a You Tube video of past competitions below.


Do you remember last year's story about the laser-filled future of mosquito killing? Some folks were working on an automatic mosquito-killing device that could identify a mosquito flying dozens of feet away, and then blast it to death with a little laser.

Ah, it was like The World of Tomorrow, but yesterday. And so... I guess that means that The World of Tomorrow is now today! Let's check where our mosquito-zapper is at...

Here it is! Check out that link for slow-motion video of mosquitoes being fried to crisps in mid-air. It's a little pathetic, and a little hilarious. (Patharious.)

And here's the site for the company working on it.


Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it is clearly a balloon: People will do some crazy stuff for a little attention.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it is clearly a balloon: People will do some crazy stuff for a little attention.Courtesy Ferran
Publicity, no matter how you get it, is still publicity, right? Whether it’s by making your kid hide in the attic while telling police he’s actually in a weather balloon careening toward earth, or by paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to own a tiny fragment of history, you still get fame. At least that’s what Southwestern Baptists Theological Seminary (SBTS) and Azusa Pacific University (APU) were hoping when they bought 3 and 5 fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, respectively. Isn’t that illegal?! That’s what I was asking myself when I read the article detailing this transaction. Apparently the purchase was entirely legal because the institutions bought the scroll fragments from a private collector; a family who, in the 1960’s, legally acquired some fragments and stored them in a bank vault (I wonder if bank vaults are humidity-controlled). They put some pieces up for sale whenever they feel like they need a little extra cash, I guess. Like you do with any culturally, historically, archaeologically, and religiously significant artifacts you have lying around. And it’s precisely this importance that seduced the aforementioned institutions into buying them- they assumed that by simply possessing little Dead Sea Scroll fragments, their credibility and academic prestige would skyrocket.

Perhaps this is true. Maybe by having these very important pieces of history will attract more scholars or research-oriented professors who, in turn, write a lot of grants and bring in more money for the university (not to mention the money they’ll rake in from ticket sales when they put the fragments on display, which APU intends to do). But from a student’s perspective, if a university has a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as cool as they are, it probably won’t influence my decision about whether or not to attend. A university’s priority should be on teaching their students, and I’m not sure that spending hundreds of thousands of dollars (maybe even millions) on bragging rights is the best way to go about it. I know! SBTS and APU could use the money they spent purchasing tiny, fragile artifacts to fund a scholarship that allows students to study biblical archaeology abroad. That kind of publicity is what can put your university on the map in a sustainable way. Of course, you could just tell your students to pretend they went abroad and use the money to buy a bunch of weather balloons… just in case you need them for future publicity.


GrapheneCourtesy Carbophiliac

Graphene is great

Graphene is a single atom thick layer of carbon atoms in a honeycomb like arrangement (read more about graphene here in

Graphene transistors are the fastest

Transistors are like valves that can turn the flow of electricity off and on. Computers can use transistors and logic circuits to solve all kinds of problems. These problems can be solved faster if the transistors can turn on and off faster. Transistors made out of graphene now can switch on and off 100 billion times per second (100 GigaHertz). State-of-the-art silicon transistors of the same gate length have a switching frequency of about 40 GigaHertz.

IBM develops next-generation transistors

IBM just announced their breakthrough in the magazine Science.

Uniform and high-quality graphene wafers were synthesized by thermal decomposition of a silicon carbide (SiC) substrate. The graphene transistor itself utilized a metal top-gate architecture and a novel gate insulator stack involving a polymer and a high dielectric constant oxide. The gate length was modest, 240 nanometers, leaving plenty of space for further optimization of its performance by scaling down the gate length. ScienceDaily


Someone is going to get a serious haunting: until I get my whiskey back!
Someone is going to get a serious haunting: until I get my whiskey back!Courtesy Brianboulton
It’s widely accepted that, if it weren’t for whiskey, some of humankind’s greatest discoveries never would have been made.

The North Pole? Forget it. Nuclear power? No chance. Einstein’s house keys? No way. (Although, to be fair, he never would have lost the keys in the first place if it hadn’t also been for whiskey.)

Whiskey is for explorers and their ilk what spinach is to Popeye.

Don’t believe me? Check this out: A quasi-archaeological expedition to Antarctica to recover the explorer Ernest Shackleton’s 100-year-old whiskey.

Apparently there were several crates buried beneath a shed Shackleton had used. So, you know, why not grab a couple? Ice had cracked some of the bottles, but the freezing point of pure ethanol is about -114º C, and the whiskey was likely at least 80 proof (40% alcohol), so, buried beneath the hut, most of the bottles were safe from freezing.

The distillery that had originally supplied the Shackleton expedition with whiskey is hoping that one of the recovered bottles might be used to reverse-engineer the whiskey blend, since that recipe was lost a long time ago.

It’s sort of like the efforts to map frozen mammoth DNA to bring the species back through cloning. Except with whiskey.


Very much like this
Very much like thisCourtesy Jeff Henshaw
Chill out, everybody. I can tell you’re all stressed out about the future, and why it’s not here, and where the flying cars are, and the laser-powered washing machines, and the genetically engineered dog-faced cats, and all that other stuff we were basically promised.

You feel like you’ve been cheated. I can see it on your faces.

Well don’t worry. The future is here, and it’s called Japan. Check it out: a machine that recycles regular old office paper into brand new toilet paper! Finally! A solution to our office paper surplus/toilet paper shortage, and a great new reason to be absolutely horrified of staples!

The new machine, called “White Goat” (because, duh, like a goat, it will eat almost anything, and it excretes something you want to rub on your orifices), will turn 40 sheets of office paper into one roll of toilet paper in about 30 minutes, at a cost of about 11 cents a roll. I’m not sure if this cost includes only the paper, or also the electricity and water the machine needs. That’s sort of important.

White goat costs somewhat more than a real goat (about $100,000), and will likely be much more difficult to eat when it has outlived its usefulness. Still, it seems like a clever in-house recycling thing, and it makes me wonder what sort of similar, and perhaps more practical, devices could be made for organizations with lots of a particular kind of waste.

Here’s the White Goat in action:


Some of my dinosaur drawings from c. 1963: I was obviously partial to Stegosaurus although I seemed to be limited to a side view.
Some of my dinosaur drawings from c. 1963: I was obviously partial to Stegosaurus although I seemed to be limited to a side view.Courtesy Mark Ryan
January 30th is Draw A Dinosaur Day. It also happens to be my birthday, and I can't think of a better way to celebrate than to draw a dinosaur and upload it to the Draw A Dinosaur Day website. It doesn't have to be your birthday to participate in the festivities - anybody can submit a picture. Just grab some paper and a pencil, pen, paintbrush, or even your mouse and computer and draw your favorite dinosaur. Then scan it or whatever, and post it to their site between now and February 2nd. Personally, my drawing technique is a bit rusty so I've dug through the archives and found some dinosaur pictures I drew back in the middle of the last century that I'm thinking of uploading. This is the holiday's 4th year.

Draw A Dinosaur Day website


Earthquake and hurricane proof

Haiti housing resource
Haiti housing resourceCourtesy jasonpearce
Housing for Haitians may already be on hand. Sturdy, earthquake and hurricane proof, shipping containers often sit empty in port yards because exporting empty containers is not cost effective.

Pernille Christensen, at Clemson’s School of Architecture, along with Martha Skinner and Doug Hecker, have been working to develop a method to convert the shipping containers into homes.

“Because of the shipping container’s ‘unibody’ construction they are also very good in seismic zones and exceed structural code in the United States and any country in the world,” associate professor Hecker said.

“You get people back in their communities and it strengthens those communities,” Christensen said. “They work on their home, not a temporary shelter, and then they work with their neighbors to rebuild the neighborhood. It leads to a healthier and safer community. And these are places often in dire need of better housing.”


Learn more about shipping container housing