March 31/April 7, 2008


Better heat-to-electricity

A thermoelectric material gets a 40 percent performance boost when formed from nanocrystals. Thermoelectric materials convert heat to electricity or, when electricity is applied to them, provide cooling without gases or mechanical parts. Improved thermoelectric materials could be used to generate power from waste heat in power plants and vehicles. (High-Thermoelectric Performance of Nanostructured Bismuth Antimony Telluride Bulk Alloys, Science, publish online March 20, 2008)

Flexible silicon

Stretchable and bendable computer circuits made from ordinarily brittle single-crystal silicon promise flexible electronic devices that perform at nearly the same level as today's rigid computer chips. Possible uses include wearable health monitors. The work advances previous research that allowed silicon to stretch in one dimension (see "Silicon gets stretchy"). (Stretchable and Foldable Silicon Integrated Circuits, Science, publish online March 27, 2008)

Inkjet transistors

Upping the voltage through an inkjet printer head shrinks the size of the ink droplets to one micron, or a thousandth of a millimeter, which is small enough to print lines two microns wide. Print a fluid containing silver nanoparticles and the technique can be used to make organic transistors on flexible plastic surfaces. These printable transistors could lead to practical flexible displays and electronic paper. (Organic Transistors Manufactured Using Inkjet Technology with Subfemtoliter Accuracy, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, publish online March 24, 2008)

Fetching robot

A robot that acts like a dog promises to help the elderly and disabled. Point to an object with an off-the-shelf green laser pointer, and the robot, whose camera is tuned to green light, fetches the object. Then point to a spot on the floor and the robot brings the object to that spot. (A Point-and-Click Interface for the Real World: Laser Designation of Objects for Mobile Manipulation, 2008 ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction (HRI 2008), March 12-15, 2008, Amsterdam, the Netherlands)

Single photons from space

Efforts to extend quantum communications to space received a boost with an experiment that bounces weak laser pulses off a satellite. The reflected pulses simulate a single-photon light source on a satellite. Single-photon sources are crucial to quantum communications, including theoretically perfectly secure quantum cryptography. Quantum communications via satellite could be used to send the signals over long distances using satellite relays. (Experimental Verification of the Feasibility of a Quantum Channel between Space and Earth, arXiv e-print service, posted March 12, 2008)

Matter wave magic trick

In recent years scientists have produced matter waves -- orderly streams of chilled atoms -- with an eye toward making sensitive instruments. Put a lattice of laser beams around an object and matter waves bend around the object in the same way that recently devised invisibility cloaks bend light waves around objects. This matter-wave-bending technique can be used to steer and focus matter waves, which could lead to matter wave instruments, including highly precise gyroscopes. (Cloaking of Matter Waves, Physical Review Letters, March 28, 2008)


View from the High Ground: ICL's John Pendry
Physics as machine tool, negative refractive index, metamaterials, shattered wine glasses, higher capacity DVDs, scientific backwaters, risk perception and practice, practice, practice.

How It Works: Quantum computing: qubits
Photons, electrons and atoms, oh my! These particles are the raw materials for qubits, the basic building blocks of quantum computers.

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"Physics is to the rest of science what machine tools are to engineering. A corollary is that science places power in our hands which can be used for good or ill. Technology has been abused in this way throughout the ages from gunpowder to atomic bombs."
- John Pendry, Imperial College London

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