Thursday, August 13, 1998
of the future
Cybersurfing with Amar Chandel
by J.P. Garg
Technology of the future
THE new machines are millimetres at the most. Their moving parts are microscopic: the size of pollen grains. The first may have already saved your life on the road and the latest may already be saving your bacon while you play Tomb Raider. Any year now theyll be ticking away in your watch, your computer, your television set.
They are the micromachines. Systems on a chip little springs and gear levers and sensors made as part of the electronic wafer are already being fitted to cars and computer joysticks.
Very soon, they could be running satellites, monitoring battlefield operations, and sniffing for dangerous fumes in fire emergencies. Right now mostly what they do is trigger airbags.
It all started, says Jim Smith of Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as a simple sensor based on a mass on a spring, built simultaneously on an integrated circuit.
Instead of a small ball weighing a few grams, it is now a little piece of silicon a little bit bigger than the width of a human hair, weighing a microgram. The springs are only a micron in width, finer than a red blood cell. So you can make a mass on a spring but you can make it on the same chip as you are making electrical components. You can sense motion from the outside world, and you can pass information optically.
You can make a decelerometer any size you like. If you make it on a chip on a scale of millionths of a metre, you have something that can sense the deceleration of the kind that might happen when cars collide at 30 mph, pass the word to its microprocessor and fire an airbag in bags of time to protect the driver.
But that is a relatively high-cost extra in an already expensive vehicle. What will kickstart the world of the micromachine is the economies of scale. Once the devices can be made in high volumes, the components themselves will become inexpensive. The machines will then become technology in search of once-unimaginable roles.
Once you have inexpensive components you can afford to put them in the joystick of a computer, says Smith. He sees them being fitted to portable tape and compact disc-players for the jogging fraternity, to compensate for shock. Your average 15-year-old may only want to spend $50 on a Walkman, but boy, hed spend $75 if it had this anti-shock feature.
The micromachines will be welcomed in spacecraft where every pound of payload adds $10,000 to launch costs. Satellites have to keep antennae pointing in the right direction, and they are fitted with sensors that tell how far the spacecraft has turned, and when to turn the thrusters off. Right now, those types of systems weigh pounds and are the size of your fist, says Smith. With a set of micromachines you could do that on a system that would weigh just a gram.
The next step is to fit them into watches. Smith and a team at Berkeley, California have fashioned a new clock source from a micromachine. The quartz crystals in your wristwatch are piezoelectric: they change shape and store a charge in an electric field and release it when there is no current, so electric energy sloshes back and forth between crystal and a timing circuit in a feedback loop.
The Sandia version works electrostatically: it uses polysilicon resonators that vibrate very like a tuning fork. The difference is in the size: 10 of them would fit on a pinhead. Right now, they generate frequencies of 1 megaherz: soon, they will be oscillating at above 10MHz. It is a step to getting the clock, the machine and the circuitry all on the same chip.
Engineers at Sandia claim to have made a micromechanical transmission assembly with a three million to one gear reduction ratio, in less than one square millimetre: surely, the torque of the town.The next trick is to supply the instruments with the capacity to share intelligence.
The problem is: how small can you make a battery, or antennae? There are some people working on fuel cell technology, there are some people working on miniature turbines; and those technologies have a much higher energy density, says Smith.
You might imagine one of those, you might imagine devices that scavenge fuel from the environment. Twenty years ago they had self-winding wristwatches you shook your arm and you wound your watch. You could imagine devices like that to capture power from the environment and that would enable them to go smaller still: millimetre-sized. Youd have to crawl around on the floor to see them.
A decade ago micromachines were laboratory curiosities. Now they are being produced in tens of millions for the electronics market: for joysticks and computer mice and inkjet printers.
By early next century, the
Sandia team calculate the market could grow to $30
billion, worldwide. I liken it to the integrated
circuit industry at the end of the 1960s, says
Sandias Bill Miller, who has been testing them for
reliability. A lot of potential, but nobody really
knew how big it could get then. (The
THROUGH this fortnightly column, we strive to draw your attention to some of the websites worth visiting - and some worth avoiding. The aim is to assist cyber-enthusiasts, particularly the new entrants, in making the most of their time and money on the Internet. While keeping the technical jargon down to a minimum, this column will offer as many practical suggestions as possible.
If you come across some sites which are particularly informative and useful, please do write to us, care of The Tribune, Sector 29-C, Chandigarh- 160020. We will share the information with the readers. Let us make the column a truly interactive forum. Happy surfing!
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There are no free lunches in the real world. Things are quite similar in the cyberworld too, with many of the premium sites being pay sites. But there is no dearth of free sites either from where tremendous quantity of information etc can be picked up gratis.
If software is what interests you, one treasure trove is at www.snap.com. You can download everything from childrens games to the latest browsers to kitchen menu planners. (Mind you, some files are in zipped form.) Interestingly, both Microscope and Netscape browsers can be downloaded from the same site.
But the most popular item these days is the ICQ pager. If you have to communicate with other people on the Net, it is indispensable. It takes little space and works like a dream, what with some excellent features. It alerts you the moment your friends go on line. You can send messages and files in a jiffy. As they say in Net lingo, it is real cool. Try it.
Others like Yahoo too have their pagers but ICQ has stolen a march over them and scored the maximum downloads during the past few months.
Speaking of Yahoo, it has been experimenting with its chat format. The new format was introduced about a month ago but the bugs are yet to be removed. While most chatters head for the relationship rooms, the science chat rooms of Yahoo are an excellent destination. Indias nuclear explosions make a popular subject in many of them even now and the ignorance of outsiders is really remarkable. See if you can shed some light on the real motives of India. Quite a few Americans I talked to were certain that India was preparing to launch a nuclear attack on the USA, through submarine launched nuclear-tipped missiles!
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Thinking of sending greetings via e-mail? Why not send greeting cards instead? Visit www.zworks.com or www.bemine.com and pick up your cards. You can browse the extensive galleries to choose the cards, select the photos to go with them and inscribe your own messages on them. What is more, you can even select the famous songs in case you want your cards to be delivered along with sound. The service charges? $ 0. At that rate it is a steal. If there is a catch, I do not know about it.
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And towards the end,
something for the children who love to know about distant
places (who does not?). Go to www.virtualearth.com or
www. virtualworld.com and you will not only be told about
various exotic places but will also be shown their
photos. How is that as the second-best option?
1. Name the Indian physicist who has been recently awarded the internationally prestigious Neils Bohr gold medal by the UNESCO.
2. Phacoemulsification, also called drive-back surgery, is a new painless surgical technique. Which disease is cured using this technique?
3. Which is the outermost planet of our solar system these days?
4. The survival of this Tibetan animal is under threat because of the illegal trade in fashionable and expensive shawls, popularly called shahtoosh shawls, prepared from the soft fur of this animal. Name this animal.
5. The telephone department has recently introduced computerised Telephone Billing Information Service on IVRS. What does IVRS stand for?
6. Madhu is a type of fruit relished by most people. What is this fruit and which organisation has developed it?
7. Man has been living for about 40,000 years. Name the general class of creatures that lived for about 165 million years (but perished about 65 million years ago).
8. What is a re-usable space vehicle called?
9. Which are the five main components of our environment?
10. Two most promising fields of geothermal energy in India are in Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir. Where are these located in these states?
Computer shows the
The scientists are delighted with the programme, which confirms that the laws of physics as defined by Einstein and Newton are right.
The team, known as the Virgo Consortium, used a giant Cray supercomputer at the max Planck societys computing centre in Garching, Germany.
They started with ripples in space the ripples found in the microwave background radiation of the universe in 1992. The ripples are things that come out from the Big Bang.
The Big Bang theory says all matter was concentrated in a tiny pinpoint, smaller than an atom, until it was released in a cosmic explosion about 10 billion years ago.
For the matter to have clumped up into the stars and galaxies we know today, there must have been little disturbance in the initial explosion. No one saw them until 1992 a huge discovery.
The team programmed in the ripples, added the laws of physics as taught by Einstein, Newton and those who followed, and told the computer to reconstruct the universe. They did not tell the computer what the universe looks like now.
It worked, the computers universe looks like the real universe.
In the end it gives us a picture of how these ripples change in time. You see how these ripples get bigger and bigger and bigger until they turn into the structure that we see in the universe today such as galaxy clusters, Carlos Frenk, a cosmologist at Britains Durham University said.