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DECEMBER 2014     

Tech News Digest

Compiled By IEEE-USA Staff

The following is a roundup of technology-related news and notable developments with a focus on electrical engineering, computing and information technology and allied fields reported during November 2014.  Items are excerpted from news releases generated by universities, government agencies and other research institutions.

DARPA Circuit Sets Guinness World Record at Speeds of 1 Trillion Cycles per Second

Officials from Guinness World Records have recognized DARPA’s Terahertz Electronics program for creating the fastest solid-state amplifier integrated circuit ever measured. The ten-stage common-source amplifier operates at a speed of one terahertz (1012 GHz), or one trillion cycles per second—150 billion cycles faster than the existing world record of 850 gigahertz set in 2012.

For more information, see:

New Strategy Seeks to Accelerate Cutting-Edge Materials Innovation

On 4 Dec., the National Science and Technology Council released the Materials Genome Initiative Strategic Plan – a national roadmap developed with input from a diverse array of stakeholders across the materials science and engineering community, which outlines how Federal agencies will execute on the MGI’s vision of decreasing the time and cost of bringing new materials from discovery to market.  The Plan identifies four key areas of opportunity including integrated research, use of advanced computational tools and theories, accessibility of data and creating a world-class materials workforce.  In addition, the plan includes twenty-two milestones marking concrete actions that the Federal agencies will take to help get the job done—including striving to increase the number of researchers who participate in MGI-related projects by 50 percent by 2017.

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Shaping the Future of Energy Storage with Conductive Clay

In the race to find materials of ever increasing thinness, surface area and conductivity to make better performing battery electrodes, a lump of clay might have just taken the lead. Materials scientists from Drexel University's College of Engineering invented the clay, which is both highly conductive and can easily be molded into a variety of shapes and sizes. It represents a turn away from the rather complicated and costly processing--currently used to make materials for lithium-ion batteries and supercapacitors--and toward one that looks a bit like rolling out cookie dough with results that are even sweeter from an energy storage standpoint.

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DARPA-Funded Inflatable Robotics Inspires Disney Character

The giant, balloon-like inflatable robot named Baymax in Disney’s Big Hero 6 has its roots in real-world research conducted by iRobot Corporation, Carnegie Mellon University and Otherlab under DARPA’s Maximum Mobility Manipulation (M3) program. The film’s co-director, Don Hall, has said he was inspired to cast Baymax as an air-filled, soft robot after he saw an inflatable robotic arm on a visit to Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute. Carnegie Mellon’s work in soft robotics has been supported by DARPA and the National Science Foundation.  DARPA’s M3 program is creating and demonstrating novel design tools, fabrication methods and control algorithms to make robots more mobile and better able to manipulate objects in their environment, including fabric-skinned robots that are filled with and manipulated by air.

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Cockroach Cyborgs Use Microphones to Detect, Trace Sounds

NC State University researchers have developed technology that allows cyborg cockroaches, or biobots, to pick up sounds with small microphones and seek out the source of the sound. The technology is designed to help emergency personnel find and rescue survivors in the aftermath of a disaster.  According to Dr. Alper Bozkurt, “in a collapsed building, sound is the best way to find survivors.”

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Polarizing Filter Promises Brighter Images and More Efficient LCD Displays

University of Utah engineers have developed a polarizing filter that allows in more light, leading the way for mobile device displays that last much longer on a single battery charge and cameras that can shoot in dim light. Polarizers are indispensable in digital photography and LCD displays, but they block enormous amounts of light, wasting energy and making it more difficult to photograph in low light.  The Utah electrical and computer engineering researchers created the filter by etching a silicon wafer with nanoscale pillars and holes using a focused gallium-ion beam. This new concept in light filtering can perform the same function as a standard polarizer but allows up to nearly 30 percent more light to pass through.

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DARPA Seeks Ideas For “Aircraft Carriers in the Sky”

Military air operations typically rely on large, manned, robust aircraft, but such missions put these expensive assets—and their pilots—at risk. While small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) can reduce or eliminate such risks, they lack the speed, range and endurance of larger aircraft. These complementary traits suggest potential benefits in a blended approach—one in which larger aircraft would carry, launch and recover multiple small UAS. Such an approach could greatly extend the range of UAS operations, enhance overall safety, and cost-effectively enable groundbreaking capabilities for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and other missions.  To explore and expedite the possible development of these potential benefits, DARPA has issued a Request for Information (RFI) ( seeking technical, security and business insights addressing the feasibility and potential value of an ability to launch and recover multiple small unmanned air systems from one or more types of existing large manned aircraft, such as C-130 transport planes.

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Wireless Devices Used by Casual Pilots Vulnerable to Hacking

A new class of apps and wireless devices used by private pilots during flights for everything from GPS information to data about nearby aircraft is vulnerable to a wide range of security attacks, which in some scenarios could lead to catastrophic outcomes, according to computer scientists at the University of California, San Diego and Johns Hopkins University.

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New Chip Enables Interaction Between Light and Sound Waves

University of Minnesota engineering researchers have developed a chip on which both sound wave and light wave are generated and confined together so that the sound can very efficiently control the light. The University of Minnesota chip is made with a silicon base coated with a layer of aluminum nitride that conducts an electric change. Applying alternating electrical signal to the material causes the material to deform periodically and generate sound waves that grow on its surface, similar to earthquake waves that grow from the center of the earthquake. The technology has been widely used in cell phones and other wireless devices as microwave filters.  The novel device platform could improve wireless communications systems using optical fibers and ultimately be used for computation using quantum physics.

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Wireless Electronic Implants Fights Infection Then Dissolves

For the first time, researchers at Tufts University have demonstrated a resorbable electronic implant that eliminated bacterial infection in mice by delivering heat to infected tissue when triggered by a remote wireless signal. The silk and magnesium devices then harmlessly dissolved. This is an important step forward for future development of on-demand medical devices that can be turned on remotely to perform a therapeutic function, such as managing post-surgical infection, and then degrade in the body.

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Uniform Nanowire Arrays for Science and Manufacturing

Defect-free nanowires with diameters in the range of 100 nanometers (nm) hold significant promise for numerous in-demand applications including printable transistors for flexible electronics, high-efficiency light-emitting diodes, resonator-based mass sensors, and integrated, near-field optoelectronic tips for advanced scanning tip microscopy.   That promise cannot be realized, however, unless the wires can be fabricated in large uniform arrays using methods compatible with high-volume manufacture. To date, that has not been possible for arbitrary spacings in ultra-high vacuum growth.

Now NIST’s PML’s Optoelectronic Manufacturing Group has achieved a breakthrough: Reproducible synthesis of gallium-nitride nanowires with controlled size and location on silicon substrates.  The result was achieved by improving selective wire-growth processes to produce one nanowire of controlled diameter per mask-grid opening over a range of diameters from 100 nm to 200 nm. Ordered arrays with a variety of spacings were fabricated.

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Transferring Thin Semiconductor Films For Use in Flexible Devices

Researchers from North Carolina State University have developed a new way to transfer thin semiconductor films, which are only one atom thick, onto arbitrary substrates, paving the way for flexible computing or photonic devices. Existing techniques for transferring such thin films from a substrate rely on a process called chemical etching, but the chemicals involved in that process can damage or contaminate the film. The new technique that takes advantage of the MoS2's physical properties to transfer the thin film using only room-temperature water, a tissue and a pair of tweezers.  The new technique is much faster than existing methods and can perfectly transfer the atomic scale thin films from one substrate to others, without causing any cracks.

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Unusual Electronic State Found In New Class of Unconventional Superconductors

A team of scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory, Columbia Engineering, Columbia Physics and Kyoto University has discovered an unusual form of electronic order in a new family of unconventional superconductors. The finding establishes an unexpected connection between this new group of titanium-oxypnictide superconductors and the more familiar cuprates and iron-pnictides, providing scientists with a whole new family of materials from which they can gain deeper insights into the mysteries of high-temperature superconductivity.

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Jet-fueled Electricity at Room Temperature

University of Utah engineers have developed a room-temperature fuel cell that uses enzymes to help jet fuel produce electricity without needing to ignite the fuel. Fuel cells convert energy into electricity through a chemical reaction between a fuel and an oxygen-rich source such as air, and can be used to power portable electronics, off-grid power and sensors.   "The major advance in this research is the ability to use Jet Propellant-8 directly in a fuel cell without having to remove sulfur impurities or operate at very high temperature," says the study's senior author, Shelley Minteer.

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Rutgers Engineers Create Smartphone App to Cut Risk of Power Outages

An easy-to-use smartphone app developed by Rutgers engineers will help keep the lights on in a heavily wooded New Jersey suburb that suffered widespread power outages during Superstorm Sandy.  Officials in Warren Township, a country-like community nestled in Somerset County's Watchung Mountains, knew they could cut the risk of future power outages if they documented vulnerable spots in the utility network, such as branches dangling perilously close to wires or poles cracking and leaning. But sending police and municipal workers to sniff out these trouble spots would be expensive and disruptive to municipal services.   Instead, a team of eight volunteers using Android-based phones and the specially designed app fanned out across the township, documenting 351 potential hazards along 317 miles of wire.

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