David Kirkpatrick

May 3, 2010

Speeding up data communications …

through nano-photonics.

The release:

An Optical Traffic Cop for Rapid Communication
Monday, May 3, 2010

TAU develops fiber optics technology to replace semi-conductors

It looks like a piece of gel that slips into the sole of your sneaker, but it’s a new nano-based technology that can make computers and the Internet hundreds of times faster — a communications technology “enabler” that may be in use only five or ten years in the future, currently being created by Dr. Koby Scheuer of Tel Aviv University’s School of Electrical Engineering.

Dr. Scheuer has developed a new plastic-based technology for the nano-photonics market, which manufactures optical devices and components. Reported in the journal Optics Express, his plastic-based “filter” is made from nanometer-sized grooves embedded into the plastic. When used in fiber optics cable switches, this new device will make our communication devices smaller, more flexible and more powerful, he says.

“Once Americans have a fiber optics cable coming into every home, all communication will go through it — telephone, cable TV, the Internet. But to avoid bottlenecks of information, we need to separate the information coming through into different channels. Our polymeric devices can do that in the optical domain — at a speed, quality and cost that the semi-conductor industry can’t even imagine,” Dr. Scheuer says.

Filtering the noise from the information

Every optical device used in today’s communication tools has a filter. Whether it’s the drive reader in your MacBook or the cable that brings cheap long-distance phone calls to your phone, each system uses filters to clean up the signal and interpret the different messages. In the next decade, fiber optic cables that now run from city to city will feed directly into every individual home. When that technology comes to light, the new plastic-based switches could revolutionize the way we communicate.

“Right now, we could transmit all of the written text of the world though a single fiber in a fiber optics cable in just a few seconds,” says Dr. Scheuer. “But in order to handle these massive amounts of communication data, we need filters to make sense of the incoming information. Ours uses a plastic-based switch, replacing hard-to-fabricate and expensive semi-conductors.”

Semi-conductors, grown on crystals in sterile labs and processed in special ovens, take days and sometimes months to manufacture. They are delicate and inflexible as well, Dr. Scheuer explains. “Our plastic polymer switches come in an easy-to-work-with liquid solution. Using a method called ‘stamping,’ almost any laboratory can make optical devices out of the silicon rubber mold we’ve developed.”

The silicon rubber mold is scored with nano-sized grooves, invisible to the eye and each less than a millionth of a meter in width. A plastic solution can be poured over the mold to replicate the optical switch in minutes. When in place in a fiber-optic network, the grooves on the switch modulate light coming in through the cables, and the data is filtered and encoded into usable information.

One word of advice: “Plastics”

His biggest hurdle, says Dr. Scheuer, is in convincing the communications industry that polymers are stable materials.

“There is a lot of prejudice in this industry against plastics. But this approach could take us to a new level of communication,” the researcher says. He also notes that the process is not much different from the way that mass numbers of DVDs are produced in a factory — except Dr. Scheuer works on a nano, not a “giant” micro, scale.

His device can also be used in the gyros of planes, ships and rockets; inserted into cell phones; and made a part of flexible virtual reality gloves so doctors could “operate” on computer networks over large distances.

July 31, 2009

Quantum computing — a breakthrough and a warning

The potential power of quantum computing is astonishing, and a lot of research is going into creating quantum computers. Of course there’s always a dark side to anything — a quantum computer that realizes the full potential of the technology will also render current security and encryption obsolete overnight.

This post is a about a breakthrough involving the building blocks of matter and how that adds to quantum computing research, and also a cautionary tale from a researcher who is preparing for the security needs when the first quantum computer arises.

First the warning:

So far, so good, despite an occasional breach. But our security and our data could be compromised overnight when the first quantum computer is built, says Dr. Julia Kempe of Tel Aviv University‘s Blavatnik School of Computer Science. These new computers, still in the theoretical stage, will be many times more powerful than the computers that protect our data now.

Laying the groundwork to keep governments, companies and individuals safe, Dr. Kempe is working to understand the power of quantum computers by designing algorithms that fit them. At the same time, she is figuring out the limits of quantum computers, something especially important so we can build safety systems against quantum hackers.

“If a very rich person worked secretly to fund the building of a quantum computer, there is no reason in principle that it couldn’t be used for malevolent power within the next decade,” she says. “Governments, large corporations, entrepreneurs and common everyday people will have no ability to protect themselves. So we have to plan ahead.”

And now the breakthrough:

Discovery about behavior of building block of nature could lead to computer revolution

A team of physicists from the Universities of Cambridge and Birmingham have shown that electrons in narrow wires can divide into two new particles called spinons and a holons.

The electron is a fundamental building block of nature and is indivisible in isolation, yet a new experiment has shown that electrons, if crowded into narrow wires, are seen to split apart.

The electron is responsible for carrying electricity in wires and for making magnets. These two properties of magnetism and electric charge are carried by electrons which seem to have no size or shape and are impossible to break apart.

However, what is true about the properties of a single electron does not seem to be the case when electrons are brought together. Instead the like-charged electrons repel each other and need to modify the way they move to avoid getting too close to each other. In ordinary metals this does not usually make much difference to their behaviour. However, if the electrons are put in a very narrow wire the effects are exacerbated as they find it much harder to move past each other.

In 1981, physicist Duncan Haldane conjectured theoretically that under these circumstances and at the lowest temperatures the electrons would always modify the way they behaved so that their magnetism and their charge would separate into two new types of particle called spinons and holons.

The challenge was to confine electrons tightly in a ‘quantum wire’ and bring this wire close enough to an ordinary metal so that the electrons in that metal could ‘jump’ by quantum tunneling into the wire. By observing how the rate of jumping varies with an applied magnetic field the experiment reveals how the electron, on entering the quantum wire, has to fall apart into spinons and holons. The conditions to make this work comprised a comb of wires above a flat metal cloud of electrons. The Cambridge physicists, Yodchay Jompol and Chris Ford, clearly saw the distinct signatures of the two new particles as the Birmingham theorists, Tim Silk and Andy Schofield, had predicted.

Dr Chris Ford from the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory says, ‘We had to develop the technology to pass a current between a wire and a sheet only 30 atomic widths apart.

‘The measurements have to be made at extremely low temperatures, about a tenth of a degree above absolute zero.

‘Quantum wires are widely used to connect up quantum “dots”, which may in the future form the basis of a new type of computer, called a quantum computer. Thus understanding their properties may be important for such quantum technologies, as well as helping to develop more complete theories of superconductivity and conduction in solids in general. This could lead to a new computer revolution.’

Professor Andy Schofield from the University of Birmingham’s School of Physics and Astronomy says, ‘The experiment to test this is based on an idea I had together with three colleagues almost 10 years ago. At that time the technology required to implement the experiment was still a long way off.

‘What is remarkable about this new experiment is not just the clarity of the observation of the spinon and holon, which confirms some earlier studies, but that the spinon and holon are seen well beyond the region that Duncan Haldane originally conjectured.

‘Our ability to control the behaviour of a single electron is responsible for the semiconductor revolution which has led to cheaper computers, iPods and more. Whether we will be able to control these new particles as successfully as we have the single electron remains to be seen. What it does reveal is that bringing electrons together can lead to new properties and even new particles.’

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 Notes to Editors

1. The paper is published in Science 10.1126/science.1171769 at http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1171769

2. The experiment was performed in Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory with theoretical support from scientists at the University of Birmingham’s School of Physics and Astronomy.

March 27, 2009

“Smart Dew” intruder detection

Filed under: Science, Technology — Tags: , , , — David Kirkpatrick @ 1:06 am

This is heading into science fiction territory, but it is very cool.

The release:

Intruder Alert: TAU’s “Smart Dew” Will Find You!

Dewdrop-sized motes serve as invisible security guards


A TAU researcher’s fingertip (bottom
right) points to a “Smart Dew” droplet

A remarkable new invention from Tel Aviv University — a network of tiny sensors as small as dewdrops called “Smart Dew” — will foil even the most determined intruder. Scattered outdoors on rocks, fence posts and doorways, or indoors on the floor of a bank, the dewdrops are a completely new and cost-effective system for safeguarding and securing wide swathes of property.

Prof. Yoram Shapira and his Tel Aviv University Faculty of Engineering team drew upon the space-age science of motes to develop the new security tool. Dozens, hundreds and even thousands of these Smart Dew sensors — each equipped with a controller and RF transmitter/receiver — can also be wirelessly networked to detect the difference between man, animal, car and truck.

“We’ve created a generic system that has no scale limitations,” says Prof. Shapira. This makes it especially useful for large farms or even the borders of nations where it’s difficult, and sometimes impractical, to install fences or constantly patrol them.

“Most people could never afford the manpower to guard such large properties,” explains Prof. Shapira. “Instead, we’ve created this Smart Dew to do the work. It’s invisible to an intruder, and can provide an alarm that someone has entered the premises.”

“The Cheapest and Smartest Solution on the Market”

Photo: Prof. Yoram Shapira, Tel Aviv University
Prof. Yoram Shapira

Each individual “dew droplet” can detect an intrusion within a parameter of 50 meters (about 165 feet). And at a cost of 25 cents per “droplet,” Prof. Shapira says that his solution is the cheapest and the smartest on the market.

A part of the appeal of Smart Dew is its near-invisibility, Prof. Shapira says. “Smart Dew is a covert monitoring system. Because the sensors in the Smart Dew wireless network are so small, you would need bionic vision to notice them. There would be so many tiny droplets over the monitored area that it would be impossible to find each and every one.”

Electronic Ears, Noses, Skin and Eyes

Unlike conventional alarm systems, each droplet of Smart Dew can be programmed to monitor a different condition. Sounds could be picked up by a miniature microphone. The metal used in the construction of cars and tractors could be detected by a magnetic sensor. Smart Dew droplets could also be programmed to detect temperature changes, carbon monoxide emissions, vibrations or light.

Each droplet sends a radio signal to a “base station” that collects and analyzes the data. Like the signals sent out by cordless phones, RF is a safe, low-power solution, making Prof. Shapira’s technology extremely cost-effective compared to other concepts.

“It doesn’t require much imagination to envision the possibilities for this technology to be used,” says Prof. Shapira. “They are really endless.”