Week of August 8, 2005

Cleaner hydrogen

Hydrogen is the focus of many people's hopes and dreams for weaning the world from fossil fuels. But while hydrogen itself is a clean fuel, most of the processes used to produce it are not environmentally sound.

Many scientists are looking to the sun to provide a clean, renewable energy source for producing hydrogen fuel, usually by using sunlight to extract hydrogen from water. Researchers from Israel, Switzerland, France and Sweden have extended the use of sunlight to another part of the hydrogen equation; they used a giant solar oven to purify zinc, which is a catalyst in the process of extracting hydrogen from water. Their prototype solar tower, positioned at the focal point of 64 mirrors harvesting sun from the Israeli desert, heated zinc oxide ore to 1,200 degrees Celsius to produce 45 kilograms of zinc powder in one hour.

(Solar Carbothermic Production of Zn From ZnO: Solzinc, International Solar Energy Society (ISES) 2005 Solar World Congress, Orlando, Florida, August 6-12, 2005)

Siggraph: remote-control humans

Researchers from NTT Communication Science Laboratories in Japan have developed a way of altering a person's balance electronically. The galvanic vestibular stimulation system uses electrodes worn behind the ears to steer someone who is walking and induce a sense of acceleration in someone who is standing. Potential uses include adding a sense of G-force to virtual reality and video games.

I find one of the researchers' suggested applications a little disturbing, though. They propose using the system for flow control of pedestrians. Who's going to feel comfortable giving control of his or her body to someone else or to a computer? I can't help but picture a glitch in the system that causes a city block's worth of pedestrians to lurch suddenly into the street.

(Shaking The World: Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation as a Novel Sensation Interface, Special Interest Group Graphics (Siggraph) 2005, Los Angeles, July 31-August 4, 2005)

Siggraph: targeted Smell-o-vision

In the late '50s and early '60s, Hollywood experimented with adding odors to movies, but pumping smelly gases into movie theaters proved unworkable. In recent years virtual reality researchers have been revisiting the notion of odor delivery to heighten sensory experience.

Various research teams have developed methods of delivering targeted blasts of scented air at people's faces, but users have found the air currents distracting. Researchers from ATR Media Information Science Laboratories in Japan have refined the air cannon approach by using multiple cannons targeted so that the scented air vortex rings they emit collide with each other at a point in space, delivering odor sans wind.

(SpotScents, Special Interest Group Graphics (Siggraph) 2005, Los Angeles, July 31-August 4, 2005)

Gray-haired qubits

One of the principal challenges to building unimaginably fast quantum computers is making quantum bits -- isolated particles used to store and process bits of information -- that last long enough to be useful. Survival times are usually measured in milliseconds or microseconds.

Researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), who have been making progress in recent years with their trapped ion quantum computing scheme, have reported that they can sustain beryllium ion qubits for more than 10 seconds, which is 50 times longer than previous systems and plenty long enough to carry out computations.

(Long-Lived Qubit Memory Using Atomic Ions, Physical Review Letters, August 5, 2005)

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