Towards Affordable Transparent Aluminum

Screen capture of the molecular diagram of transparent aluminum on an old Apple computer screen from the movie Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home
[dc]C[/dc]ontrary to popular belief, transparent aluminum is real… It’s just prohibitively expensive (or at least it was). It is known in the scientific world as magnesium aluminate or spinel. It is a mineral ceramic that is capable of allowing the visible and infrared spectrum to pass through (which is why it is often used in military applications). It is significantly stronger and harder than glass.

The U.S. Navel Research Laboratory (NRL) has discovered a cheaper method of producing the material that also requires less energy. The new method discovered uses a low-temperature hot-press that limits the size of the spinel only to the size of the press used to form it. The laboratory team, lead by Dr. Jas Sanghera, has agreed to hand over the method to the commercial industry to allow businesses to fully utilize the promising material. Because of it’s previously high cost it was primarily used in military and police armor.

Application

What can this material be used for now? A wide range of things. Lets start with cell phones. A phone screen made of transparent aluminum would be very difficult to scratch and would not shatter if you dropped the phone onto concrete. Since this material is easily bullet-resistant it could also be used to lower the cost and weight of armor for vehicles. Bullet-resistant glass for vehicles used to protect high-profile individuals such as celebrities, business persons, and politicians could be reduced in thickness while still providing the same ballistics protection. Current bullet-resistant material of choice is thick Plexiglas but to prevent most bullets from penetrating the material has to be very thick and therefore very heavy. Transparent aluminum could be used instead which would reduce weight, be easier to install, and reduce the amount of fuel the vehicle used. Because of the optical properties it is also likely to be used by the solar power industry in the future as well. It could provide better protection for solar cells with the possibility of even enhancing efficiency if the optical properties could be tuned.

The video below is from the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home where Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (played by the late James Doohan) along with Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy (played by the late Jackson DeForest Kelley) have traveled back in time and are in need of a container to hold two humpback whales and the water needed for them to survive. Scotty pulls up the chemical structure of transparent aluminum on the computer for the manager of Plexicorp, a ceramics manufacturer, and offers the deal of a lifetime.

British Grandma Rules GTA 5

Screen capture of Grand Theft Auto 5 with the British grandmother-gamer shown in the top left corner. The words "DIE! DIE! DIE!" are overlayed on the image with color transitioning from white to red.
[dc]B[/dc]ritish grandma is put in front of a computer to play Grand Theft Auto V with hilarious results! She is kicking ass (after running out of bubble-gum), taking names, and out-swearing sailors and yelling “DIE! DIE! DIE!” while shooting rockets at cars, people, and buildings!

Google’s Cell Service Play

Google Project fi logo - a green and blue lower-case "f" and yellow "i". The dot above the "i" is white and overlaps the cross of the "f".

Google likes to jump into a number of businesses that involve technology. They are heavily involved in robotics and are developing a self-driving car, conduct a number of research projects, jumped into the cloud computing ring, more recently became an ISP (Internet Service Provider) by rolling out fiber-optic internet to a number of cities across the United States, and develop the Andorid OS (operating system) that runs roughly half of the world’s cell phones. Now they are looking to take over your cell phone service as well. Google just announced Project Fi, their new mobile phone service.

Google Project fi logo - a green and blue lower-case "f" and yellow "i". The dot above the "i" is white and overlaps the cross of the "f".
Google’s Project fi Logo

The new service — currently only open to a few who request an invite — offers mobile phone service for $20 per month with data starting at $30 per month for 3 GB (gigabytes) — total of $50 per month. That is a little underwhelming given that other wireless carriers offer similarly-priced plans. It is not until you add in the discounts and features they it becomes mildly intriguing. First of all they refund you for the data you did not use. So you get refunded for the amount of data you don’t use under $3. So if you only use 1 GB in a month they will refund you $20 (data is charged at $10 per GB). There are no contracts.

One of the major drawbacks of this service is the phone selection. There is none. Currently you can only use the Motorola-produced Google Nexus 6. Sorry, no Apple iPhones here.

Where this show gets somewhat more interesting is how the service works: It uses 2 networks. Google partnered with Sprint and T-Mobile — both providers use similar technology in their networks — and the phone can simply hop onto the network that has the strongest signal. This probably increases the signal strength mildly since Sprint and T-Mobile are the smaller networks operating in the U.S. The other way to make calls is over a Wi-Fi network (including the many open networks available at restaurants, coffee shops, airports, and other offices and retail stores nationwide). However, even that is not new: T-Mobile already offers a service that allows for calls over a Wi-Fi connection.

On the plus side if you travel a lot it could be a sigh of relef. Some other mobile service providers make you jump through hoops, pay a little to a lot more for service and/or data, or simply don’t offer service in other countries. This new plan from Google works in more than 120 countries (since Sprint and T-Mobile use the same wireless technology the majority of service providers outside the U.S. use it is more compatible) though data speed is limited since only 3G connections will work. They also do not charge any more for data when traveling. It’s still the same $10 per GB. International calling rate of $0.20 per minute apply. No extra charges for texting internationally.

It’s an modest start — it’s not likely to cause a mass-exodus from other cell service providers — but will be interesting to see how their service evolves.

Earth Day 2015: Ink Out

Giant red squid clip art for Google's Earth Day quiz.

So apparently I am a giant squid. Ok, that is just the silliness put forth by Google for 2015’s Earth Day celebrations. Earth Day is an annual recognition of the environment of our own planet Earth held on April 22. It is for informing everyone about the fragility of our ecosystem, to present ideas on how to preserve it for the future, and to bring awareness about what we — humans — are doing that is not in our own best interest. Poaching, deforestation, over-harvesting leading to extinctions, and the most recent concern — climate change caused by global warming (and contrary to the belief, colder weather and harsher winters does not mean the planet is not heating up — it just further proves the issue).

Giant red squid clip art for Google's Earth Day quiz: "You're a giant squid! You can achieve anything to which you put your mind and/or your massive tentacles."
Google Earth Day 2015 Animal Quiz Response

Unfortunately not all companies fared well on the PR (public relations) meter. Many used it as just another means to advertise random products that have little to nothing to do with spirit Earth Day. They simply wanted to hijack a trending hashtag on twitter and other social networks to spit our more advertisements. Then there was Fox:

Nothing to see here. These aren’t the environmental issues you are looking for. You can go about your business. Move along.

Carbon Nanotube Filtering Breakthrough

Yellow stick of butter with two lines - one drawn across the top to represent a semiconducting wire that has not melted through the butter and another that has sunk to the bottom of the butter representing a conducting wire. The example shows a way to purify - or sort - carbon nanotubes with different properties.

Carbon nanotubes, microscopically-thin wires of carbon atoms, can be produced in sufficient quantity but not sufficient quality for electronics. They often include a bundle of wires where some are conductive, like the power wires going from your computer to the wall outlet, and some are semiconducting — the kind needed for processing information. Science Daily reports on a carbon nanotube purification breakthrough by a research team at University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, lead by professor John Rogers. Efforts to purify or sort conducting from semiconducting nanotubes have been expensive and require many steps. The new method discovered can be explained easily.

Imaging you have a stick of butter and you lay two thin metal wires — one a standard metal wire and the other a semiconducting wire — over top of the butter then attach the positive and negative electrodes of a battery to each end of wire. After a few seconds what happens? The conductive metal wire heats up and sinks into the butter stick. The semiconducting wire does not heat up nearly as much due to restricting the electron flow — so it does not sink into the butter as deeply. Instead the semiconducting wire stays nearly on the surface of the butter. Once the process is complete you can easily separate the conductive and semiconducting wire since the conductive one is at the bottom of the butter stick. Image edited to show example:

Yellow stick of butter with two lines - one drawn across the top to represent a semiconducting wire that has not melted through the butter and another that has sunk to the bottom of the butter representing a conducting wire. The example shows a way to purify - or sort - carbon nanotubes with different properties.

WARNING: DO NOT try the experiment described above! It is dangerous and could lead to burns or even an explosion — the battery and wires will heat up and can remain hot and the battery may even explode!

This new method of using current-induced heat to separate nanotubes of different properties is easy to do and is compatible with current manufacturing methods.

CD at High Speed in Slow Motion

Colorful pieces of a CD explode in all directions as it surpasses it critical rotation speed.

Gav and Dan, The Slow Mo Guys, record a compact disc (CD) explode at critical speed by spinning it on a vacuum cleaner motor. The motor makes a sickening whirring as it speeds up and eventually the CD explodes in an instant and a loud “POP!” The view in slow-motion is amazing but not even fast enough to capture much more than a second of shattering at 28,500 frames per second (fps) and the CD is spinning at about 25,000 rotations per minute (RPM). They ramp up their new toy – a Phantom Cinemag 2 v2511 – to an amazing 170,600 fps. But at that frame rate their camera captured 7 hours of video – 96 gigabytes (GB) of data – in just 4 real-time seconds!

Superconductivity Evolves

Light grey background and atomic element symbol "Al" (aluminum/aluminium) surrounded by a back circle which is surrounded by 3 progressively larger gray circles containing 13 solid circles representing the electrons in the atom. The 3 outer rings contain 2, 8, and 3 circles respectively.

Every so often it is reported that a new type of superconductivity or a new material that can super-conduct past a certain energy is discovered. The difference between the previous energy level and the new is typically relatively small — usually within a few single digits of the last (sort by the Tc (K) field). Phys.org reports on a potential breakthrough by researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) who have discovered both a new material type that may super-conduct at a significantly higher energy level (and temperature) than current superconductors. The material? An exotic, rare, and expensive mineral? Nope, plain old aluminum atoms in a cluster.

Light grey background and atomic element symbol "Al" (aluminum/aluminium) surrounded by a back circle which is surrounded by 3 progressively larger gray circles containing 13 solid circles representing the electrons in the atom. The 3 outer rings contain 2, 8, and 3 circles respectively.
Atomic structure of an aluminum/aluminium element.

The aluminum atoms have a potential critical transition (energy/temperature at which pairs of electrons mimic each other’s movements known as Cooper pairs) of 100 K (Kelvin) or about -280 degrees Fahrenheit (F). That sounds pretty cold but not when you compare it to the current high of 39 K (about -389°F). A difference of 61 K or 110°F. The researchers also believe this new material type is only the beginning and could lead to other materials with even higher transition energies and temperatures — potentially even to room temperature superconductors.

Obviously this has yet to be experimentally proven — the researchers did some preliminary experiments that show a very good possibility of superconductivity at those energies but did not actually create an aluminum superconductor. In short — looks good on paper, but may not actually exist. It will still be interesting to watch and see what happens as experiments progress with this new material type.

Efficiency Boost: Laser Ignition of Combustion Engines

Gray box containing a laser warning symbol on it and optical wires protruding from the end of the device going to each of the cylinders of a combustion engine.

Next Big Future reports on an advancement that could boost vehicle mileage by ~10 mpg (miles per gallon). Cars that previously achieved 40 mpg could achieve 50 mpg with a nearly 30% advancement in efficiency. The advancement comes from using a laser to ignite the fuel within the combustion cylinders instead of spark plugs.

Lasers have been a potential replacement for spark plugs for decades but were too big and power-hungry to use within a car. Since then miniaturization of the technology as well as efficiency gains in laser technology are allowing the technology to be used in smaller vehicles without overloading the capacity of the battery. The system is also being considered for larger vehicles such as shipping vessels to improve fuel usage and reduce emissions.

Princeton Optronics, Inc., a New Jersey based producer of lasers and related optical systems has already demonstrated the use of laser ignition in an engine. Ignition using a laser is more efficient than spark plugs since the ignition point can be designed to happen lower in the cylinder allowing for a more thorough burn of the fuel. Lasers could also fire multiple types during a single cycle allowing burn-off of a greater amount of fuel which can reduce emissions further. Even through oil prices have dropped we still continue to look for ways to make engines more and more efficient while simultaneously seeking alternative fuels. Low oil prices are a relief but will not last forever.

Multiprocessing Data Structure

A 4-level skip list where the first column is filled with the number 30, the first row of the second column contains, the first, second, and third rows of the third column are filled with the number 50, the first row of the fourth column is filled with the number 60, the first and second rows of the fifth column is filled with the number 70, and the first row of the sixth column is filled with the number 90. The animation adds two 80s and a 45 by searching through across each row before moving to the row below for the number less than or equal to the number being inserted.

Phys.org reports on an issue with processing priority queues in a world dominated by an ever-increasing number of cores. When processors (CPUs) add, remove, and read through these structures they cache the first item in the list so that it can be easily accessed and processed by a single-core processor. However this cache is the same for all available cores and when something gets changed (added or removed) it means the cache for all the cores needs to be cleared and re-read before it can be read or changed again. As you might imagine when there are 4, 8, or even more (say, 40? 80?) cores all attempting to read through, add, change, or delete items in this structure it can cause a massive slowdown that essentially obliterates the performance gain that should be had from having many cores.

A 4-level skip list where the first column is filled with the number 30, the first row of the second column contains, the first, second, and third rows of the third column are filled with the number 50, the first row of the fourth column is filled with the number 60, the first and second rows of the fifth column is filled with the number 70, and the first row of the sixth column is filled with the number 90. The animation adds two 80s and a 45 by searching through across each row before moving to the row below for the number less than or equal to the number being inserted.
An animation of additions to a skip list by Artyom Kalinin on Wikimedia Commons.

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory may have found an answer. First they looked at using a different structure — a linked list. However, this too suffered from a similar issue; You need to access the first item then traverse the sequence to find the memory address needed. Instead they tried skip lists that create rows of linked lists in order to make it more efficient to search through a linked list — a “hierarchical linked list”. They then take it a step further by starting the search lower down the hierarchy depending on how many processing cores are available. The researchers point out that it is not a perfect solution as there can still be a collision — when a data item appears at more than one level of the hierarchy — but the chances of such a collision happening are rare.

YouTube Has Gone Native!

HTML5 logo consisting of the word "HTML" at the top in bold black lettering. Below the title is a large orange "bent shield" design with a large white "5" in the center.

Today the Google-owned YouTube video-on-demand (VOD) and live streaming service that brought you kittens in teacups has switched to using the HTML5 native video tag by default. What does this mean? Up till now the majority of videos on YouTube have required the Adobe-produced Shockwave Flash plugin to play videos. However, over the years browser standards have evolved and now support playing video directly through the browser. Playing video through the browser without using a plugin is generally faster to load and faster to play. They have also introduced a few new standards to the mix to allow for encryption, protection, and streaming of content directly in the browser.

HTML5 logo consisting of the word "HTML" at the top in bold black lettering. Below the title is a large orange "bent shield" design with a large white "5" in the center.
The logo/badge developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for HTML5.

Speed

Google bought On2 Technologies, the company that produced the VP9 video codec (and likely using Google’s WebM wrapper), back in 2009. Since then they have open-sourced it and have been pushing all browser developers to support it. VP9 is able to get similar visual quality to the popular H.264 codec while reducing file size moderately. The codec is also able to be loaded very quickly, especially within the browser. YouTube claims a 15-80% decrease in start-up time over using Flash and H.264 (note that the vast majority of the load time would be starting up the Flash plugin). YouTube also claims it will enable them to start delivering 4K video at 60FPS.

Encryption & Content Protection

YouTube is also using Encrypted Media Extensions and Common Encryption standards to deliver content securely and behind a pay-wall where necessary. Unlike alternatives such as Flash and Silverlight, these content protection standards are completly separate from the content. Which means you don’t need costly proprietary software to rewrite all or part of the content to create and store it. It is also not limited to one or two pieces of content protection software. Anyone can develop their own protection schemes using the standards and offer it for free or sell it on the open market. It will be interesting to see what happens as this becomes the de facto standard over time.

Real-Time Broadcasting?

Within the same announcement, YouTube engineers also hint at the possibility of using the WebRTC (Web Real-Time Communication) standard built into most modern browsers as part of a live video streaming stack (should OBS and XSplit be worried?). WebRTC is already being used in part by Google Hangouts and it is already known that YouTube has wanted to expand it’s live streaming video offerings. Could this be a foreshadowing? Very likely. We will have to wait and find out.

Native Adaptive Bitrate

Most video streaming is done using a couple of proprietary technologies and one standard. Software like Adobe’s Streaming Media Server deliver content using Real Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP) and Real Time Streaming Protocol (RTSP) which have become outdated and unsupported. They also cause problems with corporate firewalls that block unknown protocols for security reasons. Microsoft’s Smooth Streaming is a more recent entry but is meant specifically for their proprietary Internet Information Server (IIS) and for their Silverlight browser plugin. Adoption by anyone except large media conglomerates looking to protect their content while making it near-impossible to view on any other devices (and thereby pissing off their customers) has been lackluster at best. The HLS standard created by Adobe is the most popular and easiest to implement solution so far. It provides a specific layout for playlist files and how videos should be broken into pieces that can be downloaded more quickly and allows proper management software to determine the best bitrate to use depending on the user’s bandwidth limits.

In comes Media Source Extensions. This new standard is meant to allow the script embedded in all browser – JavaScript – to create it’s own media media streams without having to rely on any specific media type or how it is acquired from a server. It also allows the browser to manage much of the back-haul and caching without requiring a large, slow script to be produced by engineers and revered by everyone.

Obviously these new standards a fresh-off-the-press having just been released this month so they will undergo a number of months of commenting, scrutiny, and alterations before they are finalized.

Lastly, YouTube is changing over their embed codes. Gone are the old <object> tags that dominated the landscape. They are now replaced with shiny new iframe embeds. The “page-within-a-page” design of iframes allows them to load the technology that is needed for each user – be it HTML5 or Adobe’s Flash plugin.