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Up From The Farm -- And The Sea

DuPont and the Energy Dept. are funding a drive to create an efficient "bio-refinery" that would enable crops to compete commercially with petroleum. Sugar from corn kernels would be turned into various chemicals, and the rest of the plant would be used to make fuel-grade ethanol and generate electricity.

Speaking of corn, there could soon be a lot more of it. A Purdue University team led by Gurmukh S. Johal says it found the genetic mechanism that prevents crop plants from growing tall. Dwarf forms of plants typically produce more grains than tall ones, so cultivating such forms could improve global food supplies, says a report in the Oct. 3 Science.

Sonar may be causing whale suicides. Autopsies of 10 beached whales in the Canary Islands found bubbles in their livers and kidneys resembling those in people with decompression sickness (the bends), reports the Oct. 9 Nature.The bubbles may have formed when the whales shot to the surface to escape a cacophony of sonar signals from a nearby naval exercise. Diamonds may be a girl's best friend, but for lasers, it's rubies and sapphires. Now, scientists at Containerless Research Inc. have a new glass that may replace those gems.

Glass is usually lumpy at the atomic level. But by cooling liquid glass very quickly, CRI achieves a more uniform distribution of atoms, allowing the addition of rare-earth elements such as erbium and ytterbium. These boost a laser's efficiency by 20% over ruby or sapphire devices -- at a fraction of the cost.

To make the first batches of this glass, ingredients were levitated with static electricity in a special tool at NASA's Huntsville (Ala.) facility (picture). This kept the drops from being contaminated by atoms on the surface of a container. The researchers have since learned how to cast the glass into rods, which are cut into disks for lasers. A possible application: Lasers for surgery. Animals produce antibodies to fight off viruses, but computer networks don't. So Steven Hofmeyr, founder of Sana Security, is trying to give them artificial immunity. His Primary Response software studies how computers on a network normally behave, then sounds an alert when it spots unusual activity. It can also block attacks without stopping regular work. Sana has signed up some heavy hitters. It recently licensed the program to RSA Security, which helps other companies authenticate computer users. RSA will use the program to guard its own network. "We have a big bull's-eye on our back and take our own security very seriously," says RSA Chief Information Officer Gerry Wilson. A major new technology will soon hit the memory-chip market, providing a path to storage capacities far beyond the limits now envisioned for 2015. Call it nanoRAM, for nanotube random-access memory. A couple of chipmakers could be cranking out prototypes next year, with mass production starting in 2005, according to the two partners that have just created the first samples using existing chipmaking equipment.

The basic concept comes from Nantero Inc., a two-year-old startup in Woburn, Mass. To prove the concept, it teamed up with ASM Lithography, a leading supplier of equipment for "printing" chips. The main departure from ordinary procedures was laying down a thin layer of cylindrical carbon molecules known as nanotubes, instead of the usual modified-silicon layer that then gets carved up into myriad transistors. Depositing the nanotubes didn't slow down the processing, says Norbert Kappel, head of ASM's Special Applications group. And the cost of the nanotubes is a mere 0.1 cents per chip.

Nantero CEO Greg Schmergel says that while today's litho tools create transistors consisting of thousands of nanotubes, "we'll eventually get down to the level of addressing individual nanotubes." When a transistor needs only a single nanotube, he adds, chips will "store terabits [trillions of bits] per square centimeter," or roughly a million times more than today's chips. But that may be a decade off.

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