In laboratories at universities, private businesses, and medical centers, paper notebooks have long been a place where tomorrow's patents are first captured in words and pictures. A new software program called the Electronic Notebook, developed by Al Geist, a computer scientist at the Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL), may change the way scientists and engineers capture those initial words and images. "Just like the Web has replaced road maps and encyclopedias, the Electronic Notebook will replace the laboratory notebook," says Geist. Users read and write to the notebook through their web browsers. The electronic notebook provides users with a means of inputting and retrieving information. Users make quick sketches, draw tables, date entries, and even "tape" in figures, photos, and graphs—just like a paper notebook. Geist believes it is important to make the electronic version as easy to use as the paper version. "The biggest value-added resource is the ability to share. In the past, everyone had his or her own notebook. Now, I can share my notebook with someone across the world as easily as with someone in the next office," he says. Users can also share a common project notebook with collaborators from around the world. ORNL personnel are working to ensure that the notebook meets all regulatory requirements for scientific records. A free demo of the electronic notebook is available at www.csm.ornl.gov/~geist/java/applets/enote .
Surfing at the speed of light
Light-based microphotonics may make voice and data communications hundreds of times faster in the next few years, according to George Kenney, a materials process engineer and the associate director of a unique research and fabrication project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Nanovation Technologies, a designer and developer of microcavity lasers, resonators, and other optical devices, is funding MIT's research on photonic devices and circuits for communication and computing systems. "It's really about bandwidth," says Kenney. "How does one coordinate and manage all the different wavelengths for cell phones, pagers, and Internet connections that we all now use? Integrated microphotonic technology offers us the ability to multiplex and get the information through much faster," he says. He indicates that engineers will greatly benefit from photonics, especially when downloading CAD drawings and working collaboratively over the Internet. "We brought together people from many disciplines and integrated their expertise in condensed matter, physics, materials science, process engineering, fabrication of microphotonic circuitry, and photonic characterization to make this happen," he says. The team Kenney helps lead consists of 17 MIT faculty from five departments, who started working together in 1993. He believes that the way his team worked together was important to the success of the project. "People normally work in a linear or serial fashion, with one person passing a piece of work to the next person and so on down the line. We couldn't do that. We had to collaborate while staying out of each other's way; bringing everything together from theory and then making it work as a system. Linear thinking won't get you there fast enough," he says. For more information about photonic networking, computing, and communication, e-mail Kenney at firstname.lastname@example.org , fax (617) 258-6900, or call (617) 253-3244.
GPS helps farmers
Renault Agriculture developed an operational prototype of an automatic guidance system for agricultural tractors using a new kinematic global positioning system (GPS). The kinematic GPS is accurate to within one inch, so it is capable of directing tractors around stationary obstacles such as utility poles and trees. As the tractor moves through a field, the route, including entry and exit points, is recorded. Lifting and lowering of tractor attachments is also recorded. Digital records are then transferred to the farmers' PC and, if desired, modified and enhanced with software. The company says that, at this time, it is essential for a driver to remain in the tractor cab for safety reasons and for monitoring the equipment. The product launch is planned for 2003. Renault worked with Cemegraf (Research Institute for Agricultural and Environmental Engineering) and LASMEA (Science and Materials Laboratory for Electronics and Automation) at the University of Clermont Ferrand in France. For information call (312) 222-1237.
Photonics Associates (Sante Fe, NM) developed a prototype plasma thruster for small micro- and nano-satellites with masses between 1 and 100 kg. The micro laser plasma thruster works by laser ablation; an intense laser beam ejects atomic layers from the condensed-phase surface. In a weightless environment, the momentum rate of the ejected mass is enough to propel the small satellites forward. They use a 935-nm high-brightness semiconductor driven by a low-voltage semiconductor switch. Claude Phipps of Photonics Associates says the photonic propulsion system could lower the cost of putting satellites into orbit to approximately $15,000, or about one hundred times less than the current price. The company will seek venture capital within 2 years. Photonics Associates works with the New Mexico Engineering Research Institute. For more information go to http://nmeri.unm.edu .
Catching some rays
Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) have created a series of devices that detect and characterize the types and amounts of cosmic radiation encountered during commercial airline flights. The instrument is called a "tissue equivalent proportional counter." It simulates a human cell nucleus, then records the energy deposited and the resulting tissue damage as cosmic radiation passes through the cells. Additional applications include assessing neutron dose rates in the workplace and basic research such as microdosimetry. Far West Technologies of Richland, WA is customizing the device in response to interest from several regulatory agencies in Europe. In May, the European Union put into effect the first-ever occupation safety standards for limiting airline crews' exposure to cosmic radiation. For more information, go to the PNNL web site at www.pnl.gov.eshs/software/tepc/index.html .
Device mimics human eye
The generic visual perception processor (GVPP) is a device that mimics the human eye. "It's a vision processing system on a chip," says Joseph Harbaugh, director of technology transfer for Bureau d'Etudes, the French firm that developed it. A single GVPP chip detects objects using a motion video signal that locates and tracks objects in real time. The chip performs 20 billion operations per second. "The most significant technical breakthrough is a spatio-temporal neuron, which is the basic building block of a perception processor," say Harbaugh. "This allows GVPP to analyze successive frames of video in real time to determine speed, direction, hue, luminescence, and saturation of each pixel. GVPP then detects and tracks objects that meet criteria such as size, shape, color, and direction of motion," he explains. The company says the chips can be made for $7 each. Automotive applications are collision avoidance, cruise control, smart air bags, license plate recognition, and parking management. Military applications include unmanned air vehicles, automatic target detection, trajectory correction, reconnaissance, and surveillance. Contact Harbaugh at (954) 262-6101.
Microscopic pumps and valves
Pumps smaller than the diameter of a human hair may one day deliver medicines to patients with chronic disorders such as allergies, diabetes, and cancer, according to physics professor Stephen R. Quake and his colleagues at the California Institute of Technology. Quake developed a system of pumps and valves using a technique called multilayer soft lithography. Unlike silicon-based micromachining processes used for producing computer chips and other small devices, the soft lithography technique produces small castings of soft rubber. "It's plumbing on a very small scale," says Quake. Layering the rubber produces the pump's tiny channels that measure 50×30×10 microns. (A human hair is 100 microns wide.) "In order to make a valve this small, we had to figure out a way to make it seal, which is usually done with a rubber washer. We just made the entire valve out of the rubber sealing material," he says. By applying pressure in one of the channels, other channels above and below it are closed off, which permits the system to act as a pump or a valve. Quake envisions the entire pump and valve system fitting on a biocompatible device the size of a postage stamp that would be implanted in people for delivering drugs in a time-released manner. He also says that his lab intends to use the microfabricated valves and pumps for two other devices. The first is a DNA sizer, which would replace the current technique know as gel electrophoresis. The other is a "cell sorter," which is a machine that separates microscopic materials such as bacteria or viruses. The California Institute of Technology licensed the technology to Mycometrix Corp. For information, call (626) 395-3631.
OOMMF for computers
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has developed a computer program that helps predict how magnetic charges in magnetic non-volatile memory behave. The program is called Object Oriented MicroMagnetic Framework (OOMMF). Manufacturers may generate models that help determine real storage capacity of hard-disk-drive products. NIST is currently working on a new three-dimensional version of the software for modeling layered materials. The software is available free at http://math.gov/oommf .