The Future is Here: Carbon Nanotube Computers

carbon-nanotubeSilicon Valley is undergoing a major shift, one which may require it to rethink its name. This is thanks in no small part to the efforts of a team based at Stanford that is seeking to create the first basic computer built around carbon nanotubes rather than silicon chips. In addition to changing how computers are built, this is likely to extend the efficiency and performance.

What’s more, this change may deal a serious blow to the law of computing known as Moore’s Law. For decades now, the exponential acceleration of technology – which has taken us from room-size computers run by punched paper cards to handheld devices with far more computing power – has depended the ability to place more and more transistors onto an individual chip.

PPTMooresLawaiThe result of this ongoing trend in miniaturization has been devices that are becoming smaller, more powerful, and cheaper. The law used to describe this – though “basic rule” would be a more apt description – states that the number of transistors on a chip has been doubling every 18 months or so since the dawn of the information age. This is what is known as “Moore’s Law.”

However, this trend could be coming to an end, mainly because its becoming increasingly difficult, expensive and inefficient to keep jamming more tiny transistors on a chip. In addition, there are the inevitable physical limitations involved, as miniaturization can only go on for so long before its becomes unfeasible.

carbon_nanotubecomputerCarbon nanotubes, which are long chains of carbon atoms thousands of times thinner than a human hair, have the potential to be more energy-efficient and outperform computers made with silicon components. Using a technique that involved “burning” off and weeding out imperfections with an algorithm from the nanotube matrix, the team built a very basic computer with 178 transistors that can do tasks like counting and number sorting.

In a recent release from the university, Stanford professor Subhasish Mitra said:

People have been talking about a new era of carbon nanotube electronics moving beyond silicon. But there have been few demonstrations of complete digital systems using this exciting technology. Here is the proof.

Naturally, this computer is more of a proof of concept than a working prototype. There are still a number of problems with the idea, such as the fact that nanotubes don’t always grow in straight lines and cannot always “switch off” like a regular transistor. The Stanford team’s computer’s also has limited power due to the limited facilities they had to work with, which did not have access to industrial fabrication tools.

carbon_nanotube2All told, their computer is only about as powerful as an Intel 4004, the first single-chip silicon microprocessor that was released in 1971. But given time, we can expect more sophisticated designs to emerge, especially if design teams have access to top of the line facilities to build prototypes.

And this research team is hardly alone in this regard. Last year, Silicon Valley giant IBM managed to create their own transistors using carbon nanotubes and also found that they outperformed the transistors made of silicon. What’s more, these transistors measured less than ten nanometers across, and were able to operated using very low voltage.

carbon_nanotube_transistorSimilarly, a research team from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois managed to create something very similar. In their case, this consisted of a logic gate – the fundamental circuit that all integrated circuits are based on – using carbon nanotubes to create transistors that operate in a CMOS-like architecture. And much like IBM and the Standford team’s transistors, it functioned at very low power levels.

What this demonstrated is that carbon nanotube transistors and other computer components are not only feasible, but are able to outperform transistors many times their size while using a fraction of the power. Hence, it is probably only a matter of time before a fully-functional computer is built – using carbon nanotube components – that will supersede silicon systems and throw Moore’s Law out the window.

Sources: news.cnet.com, (2), fastcolabs.com

Jack Andraka and I Have a Chat!

photo(1)Folks, today I have a rare privilege which I want to share with you. Not that long ago, I reached out to a certain brilliant mind that’s been making waves in the scientific community of late, a young man who – despite his age – has been producing some life saving technologies and leading his own research team. This young man, despite his busy schedule, managed to get back to me quite quickly, and agreed to an interview.

I am of coarse referring to Jack Andraka, a man who’s medical science credentials are already pretty damn impressive. At the age of 16, he developed a litmus test that was capable of detecting pancreatic cancer, one that was 90% accurate, 168 times faster than current tests, and 1/26,000th the cost. For this accomplishment, he won first place at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF).

Winning at the 2012 ISEF
Winning at the 2012 ISEF

Afterward, he and the other finalists formed their own research group known as Generation Z, which immediately began working towards the creation of a handheld non-invasive device that could help detect cancer early on. In short, they began working on a tricorder-like device, something for which they hope to collect the Tricorder X PRIZE in the near future.

While this project is ongoing, Andraka presented his own concept for a miniature cancer-detecting device at this year’s ISEF. The device is based on a raman spectrometer, but relies on off-the-shelf components like a laser pointer and an iPod camera to scan tissue for cancer cells. And whereas a raman spectrometer is the size of a small car and can cost upwards of $100,000, his fits in the palm of your hand and costs about $15.

Talking with the Prez
Talking with the Prez

Oh, and I should also mention that Jack got to meet President Obama. When I asked what the experience was like, after admitting to being jealous, he told me that the President “loves to talk about science and asks great questions. [And] he has the softest hands!” Who knew? In any case, here’s what he had to tell me about his inspirations, plans, and predictions for the future.

1. What drew you to science and scientific research in the first place?

I have always enjoyed asking questions and thinking about how and why things behave the way they do. The more I learned about a subject, the more deeply I wanted to explore and that led to even more questions. Even when I was 3 I loved building small dams in streams and experimenting with what would happen if I built the dams a certain way and what changes in water flow would occur.

When I entered 6th grade, science fair was required and was very competitive. I was in a charter school and the science fair was really the highlight of the year. Now I did not only love science, but I was highly motivated to do a really good project!

That's him, building is dams.
That’s him, building his dams

2. You’re litmus test for pancreatic cancer was a major breakthrough. How did you come up with the idea for it?

When I was 14 a close family friend who was like an uncle to me passed away from pancreatic cancer. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was so I turned to every teenager’s go-to source of information, Google and Wikipedia, to learn more. What I found shocked me. The 5 year survival rate is just awful, with only about 5.5% of people diagnosed achieving that time period. One reason is that the disease is relatively asymptomatic and thus is often diagnosed when a patient is in an advanced stage of the cancer. The current methods are expensive and still miss a lot of cancers.

I knew there had to be a better way so I started reading and learning as much as I could. One day in Biology class I was half listening to the teacher talk about antibodies while I was reading a really interesting article on carbon nanotubes. Then it hit me: what if I combined what I was reading (single walled carbon nanotubes) with what I was supposed to be listening to (antibodies) and used that mixture to detect pancreatic cancer.

andraka_profileOf course I had a lot of work left to do so I read and read and thought and thought and finally came up with an idea. I would dip coat strips of inexpensive filter paper with a mixture of single walled carbon nanotubes and the antibody to mesothelin, a biomarker for pancreatic cancer. When mesothelin containing samples were applied the antibody would bind with the mesothelin and push the carbon nanotubes apart, changing the strips’ electrical properties, which I could then measure with an ohm meter borrowed from my dad.

Then I realized I needed a lab (my mom is super patient but I don’t think she’d be willing to have cancer research done in her kitchen!). I wrote up a proposal and sent it out to 200 professors working on anything to do with pancreatic research. Then I sat back waiting for the acceptances to roll in.

I received 199 rejections and one maybe, from Dr Maitra of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. I met with him and he was kind enough to give me a tiny budget and a small space in his lab. I had many many setbacks but after 7 months, I finally created a sensor that could detect mesothelin and thus pancreatic cancer for 3 cents in 5 minutes.

ISEF2012-Top-Three-Winners3. What was your favorite thing about the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair – aside from winning, of course?

My brother had been a finalist at Intel ISEF and I attended as an observer. I was blown away by the number and quality of the projects there and loved talking to the other finalists. It became my dream to attend Intel ISEF as well. My favorite thing about getting to be a finalist was the sense that I was among kids who were as passionate about math and science as I was and who were curious and creative and who wanted to innovate and push their limits. It felt like I had found my new family! People understood each other and shared ideas and it was so exciting and inspiring to be there with them, sharing my ideas as well!

4. What was the inspiration behind you and your colleagues coming together to start “Generation Z”?

I met some other really interesting kids at Intel ISEF who were making huge advances. I am fascinated by creating ways to diagnose diseases and pollutants. We started talking and the subject of the X Prize came up. We thought it would be a fun challenge to try our hand at it! We figure at the very least we will gain valuable experience working on a team project while learning more about what interests us.

5. How did people react to your smartphone-sized cancer detector at this years ISEF?

Of course people came over to see my project because of my success the previous year. This project was not as finished as it could have been because I was so busy traveling and speaking, but it was great to see all my friends and make new ones and explain what I was aiming for.

Tricorder X6. Your plans for a tricorder that will compete in Tricoder X are currently big news. Anything you can tell us about it at this time?

My team is really coming together. Everyone is working on his/her own piece and then we often Skype and discuss what snags we are running up against or what new ideas we are thinking about.

7. When you hear the words “The Future of Medicine”, what comes to mind? What do you think the future holds?

I believe that the future of medicine is advancing so fast because of the internet and now mobile phones. There are so many new and inexpensive diagnostic methods coming out every month. Hopefully the open access movement will allow everyone access to the knowledge they need to innovate by removing the expensive pay walls that lock away journal articles and the important information they contain from people like me who can’t afford them.

Tricorder X_prizeNow kids don’t have to depend on the local library to have a book that may be outdated or unavailable. They can turn to the internet to connect with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), professors, forums and major libraries to gain the information they need to innovate.

8. What are your plans for the future?

I plan to finish my last 2 years of high school and then go to college. I’m not sure which college or exactly what major yet but I can’t wait to get there and learn even more among other people as excited about science as I am.

9. Last question: favorite science-fiction/fantasy/zombie or superhero franchises of all time, and why do you like them?

I like the Iron Man movies the best because the hero is an amazing scientist and engineer and his lab is filled with everything he would ever need. I wonder if Elon Musk has a lab like that in his house!!

Yeah, that sounds about right! I’m betting you and Musk will someday be working together, and I can only pray that a robotic exoskeleton is one of the outcomes! And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that we had a Superhero Challenge here on this site, where we designed our own characters and created a fictional crime-fighting league known as The Revengers! We could use a scientifically-gifted mind in our ranks, just saying…

Thank you for coming by and sharing your time with us Jack! I understood very little of what you said, but I enjoyed hearing about it. I think I speak for us all when I say good luck with all your future endeavors, and may all your research pursuits bear fruit!

Space Elevators!

space_elevatorWhen it comes to classic and hard science fiction, there are few concepts more inspired, more audacious, and more cool than the Space Elevator. Consisting of a cable (or tether) attached the Earth near the equator and a station in geosynchronous orbit, a structure of this kind would allow us to put objects, supplies and even people into orbit without the need for rockets and space ships.

And perhaps I am a bit biased, seeing as how one of the writer’s featured in the Yuva anthology happens to have written a story that features one – Goran Zidar, whose story “Terraformers” includes an orbital colony that is tethered to the planet by a “Needle”. But I’ve found the concept fascinating for as long as I have known about it, and feel like its time for a conceptual post that deals with this most awesome of concepts!

Here goes…

History:
The first recorded example of the space elevator concept appeared in 1895 when Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris. He considered a similar tower that extended from the ground into geostationary orbit (GSO) in space. Objects traveling into orbit would attain orbital velocity as they rode up the tower, and an object released at the tower’s top would also have the velocity necessary to remain in orbit.

space_elevator1However, his concept called for a compression structure, which was unfeasible given that no material existed that had enough compressive strength to support its own weight under such conditions. In 1959, another Russian scientist named Yuri N. Artsutanov suggested a more feasible proposal, a tensile structure which used a geostationary satellite as the base from which to deploy the structure downward.

By using a counterweight, a cable would be lowered from geostationary orbit to the surface of Earth, while the counterweight was extended from the satellite away from Earth, keeping the cable constantly over the same spot on the surface of the Earth. He also proposed tapering the cable thickness so that the stress in the cable was constant. This gives a thinner cable at ground level that becomes thicker up towards the GSO.

space_elevator_liftIn 1966, Isaacs, Vine, Bradner and Bachus, four American engineers, reinvented the concept under the name “Sky-Hook”. In 1975, the concept was reinvented again by Jerome Pearson, whose model extended the distance of the counterweight to 144,000 km (90,000 miles) out, roughly half the distance to the Moon. However, these studies were also marred by the fact that no known material possessed the tensile strength required.

By the turn of the century, however, the concept was revitalized thanks to the development of carbon nanotubes. Believing that the high strength of these materials might make an orbital skyhook feasible, engineer David Smitherman of NASA put together a workshop at the Marshall Space Flight Center and invited many scientists and engineers to participate. Their findings were published in an article titled “Space Elevators: An Advanced Earth-Space Infrastructure for the New Millennium”.

carbon-nanotubeAnother American scientist, Bradley C. Edwards, also suggested using nanotubes to create a 100,000 km (62,000 mile) paper-thin cable that would be shaped like a ribbon instead of circular. This, he claimed, would make the tether more resistant to impacts from meteoroids.  The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts began supporting Edwards’ work, allowing him to expand on it and plan how it would work in detail.

In Fiction:
arthurcclarke_fountains-of-paradiseIn 1979, the concept of the Space Elevator was introduced to the reading public thanks to the simultaneous publications of Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise (1979) and Charles Sheffield’s The Web Between the Worlds. In the former, engineers construct a space elevator on top of a mountain peak in the fictional island country of Taprobane, which was loosely based on Clarke’s new home in Sri Lanka, albeit moved south to the Equator.

In an interesting and fact-based twist, the purpose for building the elevator on Earth is to demonstrate that it can be done on Mars. Ultimately, the protagonist of the story (Dr Vannevar Morgan) is motivated by his desire to help a Mars-based consortium to develop the elevator on Mars as part of a massive terraforming project, something which has been proposed in real life.

Sheffield- The Web Between the WorldsSimiliarly, in Sheffield’s Web, which was his first novel, we see a world famous engineer who has created extensive bridge networks all over the world using graphite cable. In hoping to achieve the unachievable dream, he begins work on a space elevator code named the “Beanstalk”. This brings him into an alliance with a corrupt tycoon who wants to make rockets obsolete, and intrigue ensues…

Three years later, Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Friday features a space elevator known as the “Nairobi Beanstalk”. In Heinlein’s vision, the world of the future is heavily Balkanized, and people exist in thousands of tiny nation states and orbital colonies which are connected to Earth via the Beanstalk, which as the name suggests, is located in equatorial Africa.

ksr_redmarsIn 1993, Kim Stanley Robinson released Red Mars, a sci-fi classic that remains a quintessential novel on the subject of Mars colonization. In the novel, the Martian colonists build a space elevator that allows them to bring additional colonists to the surface, as well as transport natural resources that were mined planetside into orbit where they can be ferried back to Earth.

In 1999, Sid Meier’s, creator of the famed Civilization gaming series, released the sci-fi based Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri that deals with the colonization of the planet “Chiron” in the Alpha Centauri system. In the course of the turn-based strategy game, players are encouraged to construct special projects as a way of gaining bonuses and building up their faction’s power.

One such project is the Space Elevator, which requires that the faction building first research the technology “super tensile solids” so they have the means of building a super-tensile tether. Once built, it confers bonuses for space-based unit production, allows orbital drop units to be deployed over the entire planet, increases production rates for satellites, and removes the need for aerospace facilities. spaceelevator_alpha_centauriIn David Gerrold’s 2000 novel, Jumping Off The Planet, we are again confronted with an equatorial space elevator, this time in Ecuador where the device is once again known as the “beanstalk”. The story focuses on a family excursion which is eventually revealed to be a child-custody kidnapping. In addition to this futuristic take on domestic issues, Gerrold also examined some of the industrial applications of a mature elevator technology.

Chasm_City_coverIn 2001, Alastair Reynolds, a hard sci-fi author and creator of the Revelation Space series, released Chasm City, which acted as a sort of interquel between the first and second books in the main trilogy. At the opening of the novel, the story takes place on Sky’s Edge, a distant world where settlers travel to and from ships in orbit using a space elevator that connects to the planetary capitol on the surface.

And in 2011, author Joan Slonczewski presented a biological twist on the concept with her novel The Highest Frontier. Here, she depicts a college student who ascends a space elevator that uses a tether constructed from self-healing cables of anthrax bacilli. The engineered bacteria can regrow the cables when severed by space debris, thus turning the whole concept of tensile solids on its head.

Attempts to Build a Space Elevator:
Since the onset of the 21st century, several attempts have been made to design, fund, and create a space elevator before the end of this century. To speed the development process, proponents of the concept have created several competitions to develop the relevant technologies. These include the Elevator: 2010 and Robogames Space Elevator Ribbon Climbing, annual competitions seeking to design climbers, tethers and power-beaming systems.

space_elevator_nasaIn March of 2005, NASA announced its own incentive program, known as the Centennial Challenges program, which has since merged the Spaceward Foundation and upped the total value of their cash prizes to US$400,000. In that same year, the LiftPort Group began producing carbon nanotubes for industrial use, with the goal of using their profits as capital for the construction of a 100,000 km (62,000 mi) space elevator.

In 2008, the Japanese firm known as the Space Elevator Association, chaired by Shuichi Ono, announced plans to build a Space Elevator for the projected price tag of a trillion yen ($8 billion). Though the cost is substantially low, Ono and his peers claimed that Japan’s role as a leader in the field engineering could resolve the technical issues at the price they quoted.

obayashi-2In 2011, Google was reported to be working on plans for a space elevator at its secretive Google X Lab location. Since then, Google has stated that it is not working on a space elevator. But in that same year, the first European Space Elevator Challenge (EuSEC) to establish a climber structure took place in August.

And in 2012, the Obayashi Corporation of Japan announced that in 38 years it could build a space elevator using carbon nanotube technology. Their detailed plan called for a 96,000 long tether, supported by a counterweight, that could hold a 30-passenger climber that would travel 200 km/h, reaching the GSO after a 7.5 day trip. However, no cost estimates, finance plans, or other specifics were made at this point.

space-elevator-schematics-largeDespite these efforts, the problems of building are still marred by several technical issues that have yet to be resolved. These include the problems of tensile strength, dangerous vibrations along the tether line, climbers creating wobble, dangers posed by satellites and meteoroids, and the fact that such a structure would be vulnerable to a terrorist or military attack.

Other Possibilities:
Though we may never be able to resolve the problems of building a space elevator on Earth, scientists are agreed that one could be made on other planets, particularly the Moon. This idea was first devised by Jerome Pearson, one of the concepts many original proponents, who proposed a smaller elevator that would be anchored by Earth’s gravity field.

LiftPort1This is a necessity since the Moon does not rotate and could therefore not maintain tension along a tether. But in this scenario, the cable would be run from the moon and out through the L1 Lagrangian point. Once there, it would be dangled down into Earth’s gravity field where it would be held taught by Earth gravity and a large counterweight attached to its end.

Since the Moon is a far different environment than planet Earth, it presents numerous advantages when building a space elevator. For starters, there’s the strength of the materials needed, which would be significantly less, thus resolving a major technical issue. In addition, the Moon’s lower gravity would mean a diminished weight of the materials being shipped and of the structure itself.

space_elevator_lunarAs Pearson explained:

[T]o lift a thousand tons per day off the lunar surface, it would take less than 100,000 tons of elevator to do it — which means it pays back its own mass in just 100 days, or somewhere between three and four times its own mass per year — which is not a bad rate of return… You don’t need nanotubes and very, very high strength materials. But the higher the strength, the more of the ratio you can get for hauling stuff on the moon.

In fact, LiftPort is already deep into developing a “Lunar Elevator”. Plans to build one by 2020 were announced back in 2010, and since that time, the company launched a Kickstarter campaign to get the funding necessary to conduct tests that will get them closer to this goal. These consisting of sending a tethered robot 2km from the surface to conduct stress and telemetry tests.

Ultimately, the company estimates that a Lunar Elevator could be made at the cost of $800 million, which is substantially less than a “Terran Elevator” would cost. Similarly, it is likely that any manned missions to Mars, which will include eventual settlement and plans to terraform, will involve a Martian elevator, possibly named the “Ares Elevator”.

Much like SpaceX’s attempts to resolve the costs of sending rockets into space, the concept of a space elevator is another means of reducing the cost of sending things into orbit. As time goes on and technology improves, and humanity finds itself in other terrestrial environments where resources need to be exported into space, we can expect that elevators that pierce the sky will become possible.

In the meantime, we can always dream…

space_elevator_conceptSources: en.wikepedia.org, gizmag.com, io9.com, forbes.com, universetoday.com, futuretimeline.com

The Future is Here: Aerographite!

According to a recent story on CBC.ca, a new material has been developed which is the currently renowned for being the lightest material in the world. Known as Aerographite, the material is composed of carbon and weighs roughly one-seventy-fifth that of Styrofoam.

Created by researchers working at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg (TUHH) and Christian-Albrechts University of Kiel, this material is also said to be flexible, stable, water resistant, and a good conductor of electricity. It might sound like no big deal, but ultra-light substances that are composed of basic elements are things which were predicted to accompany the development of nanotechnology.

You see, at the micro level aerographite resembles a network of porous carbon tubes (pictured at right), which calls to mind the concept of the carbon nanotube. Much like the Buckminsterfullerene, this microscopic structure is predicted to be the mainstay of construction someday, just as soon as we can create nanomachines capable of erecting buildings!

And just think of it, diamonds are essentially carbon that has been layered and then super-compressed to become a near-indestructible material. If you have the ability to assemble tiny atomic structures made out of carbon, you can essentially create not only create diamonds, but also objects that are both extremely light and highly resilient. And just so you know, the researchers who produced aerographite have indicated that it can be compressed without damage.

Okay, it’s not exactly a technological revolution, but it is a step in that direction. Yep, soon enough we’ll be able to erect buildings simply by dumping some grey goo on the ground and watching a building sprout up. And unlike our current edifices of concrete, steel and glass, will be composed of different configurations of carbon and other primary elements. They will be stronger, lighter, able to endure indefinitely, maybe even capable of upgrades!