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Businessweek Archives

Will Oxygen Take The Air Out Of Nanotubes?

Developments to Watch

Will Oxygen Take the Air out of Nanotubes?

For many years, scientists have thought tiny, supertough molecules known as carbon nanotubes would be the ideal building blocks of next-generation microdevices such as semiconductors, which will be orders of magnitude smaller than today's electronic components. But the more scientists learn about the properties of nanotubes, the harder it is to predict exactly how they can be used.

In the Mar. 10 issue of Science, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory report that single-walled carbon nanotubes are extremely sensitive to oxygen. That means that if they are ever used in electronic components, the devices may not perform well in normal, nonvacuum environments. "There could be problems if you think of these as room-temperature devices," says Berkeley theoretical physicist Marvin Cohen, who collaborated with the authors of the report. Cohen predicts the nanotubes' sensitivity to oxygen and other gases may earn them a role in various new types of sensors.

But even if gas sensitivity or other properties foil scientists' attempts to construct defect-free carbon nanotubes, the whole architecture for chips built on the atomic scale may be so different that defects in individual elements won't matter much. "If we spend all our time making things perfect at the nano level, nobody will ever make any money," says Meyya Meyyappan, senior scientist for nanotechnology at the NASA Ames Research Center. "There are going to be defects, and we must learn to get along with them."By Neil Gross; Edited by Ellen LickingReturn to top

These Creatures May Be Smarter Than the Script

Velociraptors such as the ones in Jurassic Park are a computational nightmare requiring reams of calculations for every twitch of claw and gnash of jaw. Suppose, instead, that animated predators stomped and stalked simply because it was in their nature? Armed with a species of artificial-intelligence software called a cognitive modeling language, University of Toronto computer-science professor Demetri Terzopoulos is creating such creatures.

His work builds on artificial-life concepts used in earlier generations of digital pets, such as "tamagotchi." But Terzopoulos' critters don't just breed and evolve--they plot and strategize. A semi-sentient shark and merman, for example, are imbued with instincts and emotional drives, such as hunger, fear, and the urge to reproduce. Their capabilities, however, are not symmetrical. "The shark is a faster swimmer," says Terzopoulos, "but the merman is smarter and can outsmart the shark."

Terzopoulos believes such creatures could save Hollywood a fortune. Instead of paying for weeks of programming, "the director could just say to his character: `Go kiss the leading lady--and then eat her."'By Neil Gross; Edited by Ellen LickingReturn to top

Hothouse Hangars to Fight Water Pollution

Airlines typically spray 500 or more gallons of glycol, an antifreeze-like petroleum product, to remove dangerous snow and ice from the wings of a plane. The ice blasting takes about 10 minutes and costs $1,500 to $3,000. The process isn't just costly--it's also bad for the environment. Glycol is a particularly nasty chemical that kills fish and other wildlife when it pollutes neighboring water supplies. But a new multimillion-dollar heating faculty that more quickly and cheaply de-ices planes now in operation at Newark International Airport could put an end to the widespread use of glycol by the airline industry.

The new technology, dubbed InfraTek, was developed by Radiant Energy Corp. in Orchard Park, N.Y. Company scientists have essentially designed a hothouse hangar that radiates high-energy infrared beams at a plane's exterior to melt snow and ice. It takes only three to six minutes to de-ice an entire plane. But time savings isn't the only advantage. The heating technology costs at least half the price of the glycol, and there's no messy chemical to clean up.Edited by Ellen LickingReturn to top

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