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Technology bulletin

Technology bulletin

For whom the bell tolls

"The Year 2000 problem will be a nuclear winter; data destruction of unforeseen proportions." So says Bob Bemer, the pioneer programmer who is credited with the invention of ASCII type and coining the term COBOL. Bemer, 77, has come out of retirement to take on an issue of Damaclesian proportions: the so-called "Y2K Problem." The turn of the century threatens every computer program that calculates years as two-digit numbers with chaos upon the stroke of midnight, January 1, 2000. At that moment, when the digits roll over to "00," many computers will think they have gone back in time to 1900 rather than forward into the new millennium (or into the last year of the current one, if you want to get technical). The result: locusts, frogs, rivers of blood, cats and dogs living together. Bemer charges the problem has been inevitable for decades, when neither industry nor the U.S. Government would standardize on a four digit methodology for recording dates in software. "The lawsuits resulting from all the data damage will be greater then from tobacco and asbestos combined," Bemer predicts. What to do? Well, Bemer has come up with a software fix, Vertex 2000, that searches for and replaces date sequences in the object code of programs. This "piggybacking" approach extends date fields from two digits to four, providing millennium compliance without altering the source code and with a minimal impact on system performance. Vertex 2000 will be distributed by Transformation Processing Inc., Mississauga, ON, Canada. Now, what about the Y10K Problem? For more information, call Peter Ross, TPI, at (905) 812-7907.

Big Blue ushers in a new Copper Age

According to IBM Microelectronics, East Fishkill, NY, the company's breakthrough CMOS 7S technology enabling it to replace some aluminum interconnect wiring with copper will lead to higher circuit densities per chip and lower power requirements. And it will all be happening sooner rather than later: Big Blue plans to introduce its next generation application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) products based on CMOS 7S later this year. Because copper has lower resistance than aluminum, fewer electrons are required to accomplish a given goal. This means an aluminum-based IC device that used 2.5 volts can be replaced by a CMOS 7S device using 1.8 volts. The tendency for copper to contaminate the surrounding silicon has prevented its use in the past. Also, copper often clumps when put down using traditional chemical deposition methods and also smears when polished during the finishing process. However, researchers at IBM Microelectronics have developed a proprietary coating that acts as a boundary layer between the copper and the silicon. They have also developed new methods for laying and polishing copper on silicon. According to Bill O'Leary of IBM Microelectronics, the new production methods do not require extensive retooling of wafer foundries. For more information, check out IBM Microelectronics' Website at:

Generating power down by the sea

The sea has often been viewed as an inexhaustible supply of resources. While recent history has dismissed much of this notion, it is safe to say the ocean has one resource in abundance: moving water. Seanergy, Mexico City, Mexico, has designed a wave energy storage system that harnesses the power of the sea to produce electricity. Unlike tidal power, the Seanergy machine uses the ascending and descending motion of waves to pump water to an elevated location onshore. A floater (reminiscent of the bobber in your toilet tank) attaches by cable to the piston of a hydraulic pump secured to the ocean floor. Vertical displacement of the floater by wave action pumps water by pipe to an onshore storage tank. The stored water, when liberated, runs a turbine hooked to an electric generator. The company says a floater displacing 470 gallons would be able to pump 20,000 gallons of sea water per hour to an elevation of 330 ft. This would produce approximately 20.5 KW/h of electricity. The Seanergy machine uses readily available components and promises an inexhaustible supply of energy. Provided global warming doesn't melt the ice caps and flood current coastlines, of course. For more information contact Luis Felipe Rego, Seanergy, at (525) 202-6817.

Air cushion may prevent steam explosions

Oak Ridge National Lab, Oak Ridge, TN, has developed a new method for preventing steam explosions, a leading cause of deaths and injuries in the metal-casting industry worldwide. According to the Aluminum Association, which sponsored the research, that industry alone experienced several hundred explosions from 1980 through 1995, resulting in many casualties and much property damage. Many organic coatings used to suppress explosions have come under scrutiny due to toxicity concerns and one widely used coating has been banned. The Oak Ridge studies lead to the discovery that air and other non-condensable gases injected into the mold when the aluminum is water cooled can prevent steam explosions. "When molten aluminum first comes into contact with water, a protective steam film forms," explains Rusi Taleyarkhan of the lab's Engineering Technology Division. "Sometimes, a trigger causes the steam film to become unstable, breaking up the molten aluminum into millions of particles, and the water flashes into high-pressure steam. We believe that air injected into the protective steam film would repel water that would otherwise contribute to a steam explosion and would cushion against external shocks that could make the film collapse." The next step is to build a field demonstrator to test the new gas-injection technique. For more information, consult the Oak Ridge Website at

Fuel cells may get early release

The U.S. Department of Energy has signed a Memorandum of Agreement with a consortium of Australian companies to commercialize fuel-cell technology under development at Lawrence Livermore National Labs, Livermore, CA. The consortium, Power Air Tech USA, to be headquartered in San Francisco, could invest up to $100 million to further lab research over the next five years. The technology revolves around a zinc-air fuel cell and zinc recovery unit that could be adapted to a wide variety of applications, from utility power generation to facility uninterruptable power supplies to heavy vehicles. Zinc-air fuel cells mix zinc pellets and electrolyte with air to create electricity. According to Lawrence Livermore, the fuels cells can produce up to five times more power than lead acid batteries of the same weight and have minimal environmental impact. Spent zinc can be recycled into zinc pellets. Plans are underway for constructing a two megawatt zinc-air fuel cell power plant at the Livermore site. John Landerer, a representative of Power Air Tech USA says: "We will make every effort to have this technology on display in Sydney for the 2000 Olympic Games." For more information, contact Gordon Yano, Lawrence Livermore public affairs, at (510) 423-3117.

Plastic batteries included

Johns Hopkins researchers from the university's Applied Physics Lab and Department of Materials Science and Engineering are cooperating to develop an all-plastic battery. The so-called Integrated Power Source consists of an anode, a cathode, and a nonliquid electrolyte all of which are made of polymers. The key has been the development of new polymers capable of storing and discharging electricity. The all-plastic battery, which is made of non-toxic materials, can be recharged hundreds of times and can operate at temperature ranges from 50C to -45C with little performance degradation. Laboratory performance currently is rated at just over 3 volts. In addition, the battery has a thin sandwich design (like a credit card) that would enable manufacturers to make sheets of batteries that could be cut for specific applications. The Integrated Power Cell grew out of research initiated and funded by the U.S. Air Force Rome Lab, whose interest is in military and aerospace applications with stringent weight, space, and temperature requirements. However, the technology is expected to be inexpensive enough for broad commercial use. For more information, contact John Suter of the Space Department at Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Lab (410) 792-5826.

Let's get small

Electronic devices are getting smaller and smaller. The ultimate in microelectronics by definition would be devices that work one electron at a time. Wayne Richardson, a research associate at the Ginzton Lab at Stanford University, Stanford, CA, has designed a single-electron diode that permits its signals to be amplified in a controlled way over a range of operating voltages. The device consists of a gallium arsenide junction between one region of electrons and another of microscopic holes that act as positively charged particles. The gallium arsenide is doped with impurities to produce these two conditions. Richardson says at temperatures of near absolute zero, the junction will act as a single-electron diode. Although there are no immediate plans to construct such a transistor, so-called "mesoscopic devices" are generating interest as possible components for neural networks, quantum computers, cellular machines, and high-precision measurement systems. For more information, call Wayne Richardson at (650) 725-2161.

Air Force opens coating technology integration office

The application and removal of aircraft and associated equipment coating systems generates about 75% of the Air Force's hazardous waste. As a result, the Air Force needs to integrate more environmentally friendly coatings. Helping to make this a reality is a new Coatings Technology Integration Office (CTIO) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, OH. Scientists, engineers, and technical staff from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, TX, have been contracted to operate the office. Recent CTIO projects include: testing a new blasting material that strips paint as well as acrylic media with less structural damage providing on-site air sampling and analysis using the SwRI mobile analytical chemistry laboratory at a field station, and evaluating wipe solvents in refinishing processes to ensure environmental regulations are being met. "The military is moving away from the use of military specifications that were developed for specific weapon systems toward more generic 'guidance specs,' as well as industry standards that are less expensive to maintain," reports Mary Marshall, director of the Microcapsules, Coatings, and Polymer Department at SwRI. For example, one SwRI staff member has developed an improved adhesion tester to measure the pull-off strength of coatings. FAX (210) 522-3547.

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