Talking Point

Written by fe Bureau | Updated: Dec 1 2009, 04:37am hrs
Building blocks

Low power computer chips that dont rely on an electrical current to handle data have just come a big step closer. The key result sounds deceptively simple: scientists have injected electrons into silicon at room temperature and set a majority of them spinning in the same direction. But the experiment is a real breakthrough, claim researchers at the University of Regensburg, Germany. Conventional electronics uses the electrons charge to move and process information. Spintronicsor spin-transport electronicsoffers an alternative, relying on the electrons magnetism, or spin, to encode information.

As chips shrink, they also become more complex and operate at higher speeds, driving an exponential growth in the amount of power needed to move electrons around them. Unless an alternative can be found electronic devices may soon become too power-hungry to be practical. The researchers believe that the answer may lie in spin. Rather than moving charges around, spin-based devices would simply have to flip the direction of an electrons internal bar magnet. The key to the teams success was the single layer of aluminium oxide. Previous experiments had used two or more such layers, which stifled the flow of spin-aligned electrons. A single, thin coating between the magnetic material and the silicon allowed the electrons to flow smoothly at room temperature. The simplicity and reliability of the technique are likely to make it a new standard in the field. But there are still a few more steps before spintronics can come to fruition.

3D scanner

Its called ProFORMA, or probabilistic feature-based online rapid model acquisition, but it is way cooler than it sounds. The software, written by researchers at the department of engineering at Cambridge University in England, turns a regular, cheap webcam into a 3D scanner. Normally, scanning in 3D requires purpose-made gear and time. ProFORMA lets you rotate any object in front of the camera and it scans it in real time, building a fully 3D texture mapped model as fast as you can turn an object. Even more impressive is what happens after the scan: The camera continues to track the object in space and matches its movement instantly with the on-screen model.

It works by generating a 3D point cloud from the image coming through the camera and then uses some clever math to both ignore the occasional occlusion of the model by a hand and to work out where the surfaces are. Clever math but imagine, for a second, the uses. Forget Nintendos Mii avatars, for instance. Instead you could make a 3D version of yourself, or add your favourite household items into a game of Mario Kart. You could quite possibly hook this right up to a 3D printer and make fast facsimiles of almost anything. This is all done using a single camera, just like the one thats staring from the top of your laptop.

Flu scan

Researchers are turning their attention to one of the great unknowns about the ongoing H1N1 influenza pandemic: how many people have been, and are being, infected. The first surveys to monitor for antibodies to the virus are now getting under way, belatedly in some countries such as the United States. The findings could substantially change much of what epidemiologists know about the current pandemic. Gathering that information is crucial for improving estimates of pandemic spread, severity and mortality, and informing policies such as how to distribute vaccines and antiviral drugs. Testing blood samples for antibodies to pandemic H1N1 is the only definitive way to establish how many people have been exposed to the virus and to begin to estimate how this is changing over time. Britain, France and Vietnam are among those farthest ahead with such studies for H1N1. In UK, survey leaders have collected 1,403 blood samples from before the first pandemic wave, and 1,954 taken in August and September, across all age groups from eight regions in England. In France, the project is recruiting 30,000 pregnant women, and gains speed by piggybacking on the existing infrastructure for routine blood sampling of this group. However, the United States was less prescient, it seems. Academic groups there are still in the process of applying for funds for such surveys. During pandemic planning before the current virus arose, the United States extensively discussed the need for such studies but decisions werent taken.

Source: Nature, Reuters & Wired