Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A New Deal for EEStor

A delayed battery technology may indeed be on the way.

Good-bye batteries?: The startup EEStor says that it has technology that will store ten times as much energy as lead acid batteries.
Credit: Morris County Municipal Utilities Authority

Earlier this month, a stealthy startup that says its ultracapacitor-based energy storage system could make conventional batteries obsolete took a small step toward proving its many skeptics wrong.

The company, EEStor, based in Cedar Park, TX, has made bold claims about its technology but has so far failed to deliver a working commercial product. However, an agreement announced this month with Lockheed Martin, based in Bethesda, MD, suggests that the company could be making progress--at least enough to convince a major defense contractor that the technology has merit. The agreement gives Lockheed an exclusive international license to use EEStor's power system for military and homeland-security applications--everything from advanced remote sensors and missile systems to mobile power packs and electric vehicles. The technology, Lockheed said in a statement, "could lead to energy independence for the Warfighter."

Lockheed has not seen a working prototype but said that qualification testing and mass production of EEStor's system is planned for late 2008. Lockheed would not disclose the terms of the partnership. "We fully intend to work with EEStor this year to prototype and demonstrate this technology for the soldier," says Lionel Liebman, Lockheed's manager of program development in its applied research division. "We're looking at a lot of applications where the EEStor application can help."

EEStor says that its patented system is a nontoxic, safe, and lower-cost alternative to conventional electrochemical battery technologies, offering ten times the energy density of lead-acid batteries at one-tenth the weight and volume. The company also claims that its system allows rapid and virtually unlimited charging and discharging without significant degradation of the unit. (See "Battery Breakthrough?") But many experts have been skeptical, citing the difficulty of working with the material at the core of the company's system: a ceramic made of barium-titanate.

A lack of news from the company has only fed the skepticism. The last public announcement from EEStor came last January, when it revealed that it had made high purity barium-titanate powders on its first automated production line. But the company has so far failed to deliver units of its storage product to minority investor ZENN Motor, a company based in Toronto that plans to use it in electric vehicles. Originally, the devices were to have shipped in the first half of last year.

EEStor chief executive Richard Weir declined to comment on the development of the technology and the agreement with Lockheed. But he told Technology Review in an e-mail message that he's anticipating another "technical news release in the near future," at which time he would be open to discussing EEStor's progress in more detail.

ZENN chief executive Ian Clifford remains optimistic. "Every restatement of delivery time has been for good reasons," he says, suggesting that the Lockheed announcement and the due diligence that led to it "add credibility to the technology." He's now expecting delivery of the energy-storage unit in mid-2008. And it won't be a prototype, he emphasizes: it will be a mass-produced commercial product. "This is about commercialization, not hitting technology roadblocks. We're in constant contact with EEStor, with regular visits to their site. We always come away from every meeting much more excited that this is going to happen."

ZENN has already switched to a different motor in its current low-speed electric vehicle, partly in anticipation of the new energy storage technology. "We're first in line," says Clifford. "We understand we'll be taking the first product off the production facility being built right now."

Liebman, who says that he has visited EEStor's facility in Cedar Park and was impressed, also expressed confidence in the company. He notes that EEStor's approach so far allows for a rapid ramp-up in production. "I think it's very real," he says.

Mixing Mammals

Putting bat DNA into mice sheds light on how limbs evolved.

Batmouse: Scientists gave mice the bat version of a piece of DNA that boosts activity of a gene involved in limb development. The mice had slightly longer limbs than their normal counterparts, demonstrating the subtle force of evolution.
Credit: Technology Review

By outfitting mice with a chunk of DNA that directs wing development in bats, scientists have created rodents with abnormally long forelimbs, mimicking one of the steps in the evolution of the bat wing. Their work gives weight to the idea that variations in how genes are controlled, and not just mutations in the coding regions of genes, are a driving force in evolution.

The slightly longer forelimbs of the transgenic mice "make them more batlike," says Nipam Patel, a professor of molecular and cell biology and integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the work. "It seems like a subtle difference, but evolution works by these subtle differences."

The researchers focused on a gene, Prx1, that plays a part in the elongation of limb bones in mammals. The gene's expression is regulated by another sequence of DNA, called a Prx1 enhancer. To investigate how the enhancer shapes limb development, Richard Behringer, a professor of molecular genetics at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and his colleagues around the country put the bat version of the Prx1 enhancer into mice so that it controlled the mouse Prx1 gene. These transgenic animals developed forelimbs that were on average 6 percent longer than normal by the time they were born. It was a significant difference, although "the mice look like mice," Behringer says. "They're not going to fly out of the cage." The researchers report their work in the latest issue of Genes and Development.

To have any chance of flying, mice would have to develop very different forelimbs, like those of bats, which are longer and have membranes stretched between the bones. Behringer says that he'd like to try replacing the limb enhancers in mice with those from other animals, such as whales or wallabies.

Charles Darwin contemplated the evolution of different kinds of limbs in On the Origin of Species. Starting with a basic limb pattern, "successive slight modifications," he wrote, eventually produce the various mammal limbs we see today: human hands, bat wings, whale fins.

"We think what we've done is made one of those slight modifications," Behringer says. "Maybe during evolution you'd have a lot of those and the limb would get a lot longer, and maybe some of the tissue would be retained between digits, ultimately leading to the structures that would allow a bat to fly."

"It's a very nice demonstration of something that people have been suspecting now for some time: that regulatory sequences rather than changes in protein sequences sort of drive evolution," says Susan Mackem, who heads the Developmental Biology Unit at the National Cancer Institute's Center for Cancer Research. Mackem was not involved in Behringer's research.

Behringer's team also found something unexpected. When the researchers created mutant mice that lacked the mouse Prx1 enhancer, the animals developed forelegs of a normal length. That suggests that more than one enhancer controls the expression of the Prx-1 gene in mice, ensuring what Behringer calls a "regulatory redundancy."

"As long as there is one copy to do the work, the other copy can be creative," says Ann Burke, an associate professor of biology at Wesleyan University.


IBM to Release Mashup Software

A new product lets workers combine simple bits of software to create business tools.

Putting pieces together: Lotus Mashups is a new product from IBM that aims to make it easy for people to build software applications by combining existing tools. For example (shown above), a user might combine an organizational map of a company with employee pictures, profile information from the company directory, and a database of files that each person can update. In this example, these features are wired together so that when a user clicks on one person’s picture, this action pulls up the directory information for that person and a list of his files.
Credit: IBM

A new product from IBM could help businesses get more from their data by making it easy for workers to mash together simple tools to create something better. Known as mashups, these software applications have been very popular with consumers. But few people have the technical ability to create them. Jeff Schick, vice president of social software for IBM, says that Lotus Mashups will change that, by reducing the technical skill required to combine the applications, and by adding features to protect sensitive data.

"Lotus Mashups will let organizations and communities easily assemble new applications with interoperability across the entire span of [business] tools," Schick said Monday at the Lotusphere conference in Orlando, FL, when he announced the product. An employee could, for example, combine a map of store locations with store inventory information, so that clicking on the location brings up, say, a stock list. Normally, this would require programming skills. But Schick says that with Lotus Mashups, the process is simple: users connect existing applications by dragging and dropping them onscreen.

The product will ship with many premade mini-applications called widgets that can serve as building blocks that users can put together to start making mashups right away, explains Nicole Carrier, program director of the portal segment for IBM. An included tool will help users get data from the Web or company databases and organize it to create a mashup. The system will also include a catalogue area, where users can upload mashups they have made to share with others. Mashups can also be shared through e-mail links, or by embedding them in Web pages.

Carrier says that Lotus Mashups is part of IBM's strategy to make business tools for "the younger generations that have been weaned on MySpace and Facebook." She notes that many business currently use spreadsheets as tools to create simple applications that process data. Mashups, Carrier says, could provide a better way to make some of these applications, particularly because they can be tied to Web services that would help keep data up to date.

"The holy grail for a long time has been to design something that lets the nontechnical person do software engineering," says John Gerken, a senior architect for the Emerging Internet Technologies Software Group at IBM. "This is a step toward that goal." The product's drag-and-drop interface conceals several technical problems that had to be solved to build the software, he says.

Although there's been an explosion of widgets on the Web in the past year, Gerken notes that in most cases, it's easy for users to make widgets share space on a Web page, but not to make them share data. "They're mixable, not mashable," he says. For example, Facebook users can paper their profiles with a variety of simple applications, but those applications are isolated from each other. In contrast, Mashups allows users to combine widgets, so that taking an action within one widget triggers the others to act too. For example, a user could build an application for tracking stock prices of different companies, using a chart as the central widget. The chart could include company name, location, and ticker symbol. Clicking a line in the chart could send data to several connected widgets, such as one that looks up the company name on Google, one that maps the location of the company headquarters, and one that retrieves the most recent stock price for the company. Gerken adds that IBM is participating in the Open Ajax Foundation's effort to create standards for widgets, which will hopefully make it more common for widgets from different sources to share data.

In the mashup above, a user has combined an organizational map of a company with employee pictures, profile information from the company directory, and a database of files that each person can update.
Credit: IBM

To build these applications, a user selects from lists of widgets and data sources and drags them together onscreen. Dropping a list of store locations onto a map widget makes the system automatically plot those locations on a map. Gerken says that a major design challenge was programming the system so that it could understand what the user likely wants it to do in such a situation. To try to solve that problem, the system tries to recognize similarities in data that might not be tagged the same way. It must recognize, for example, that an "address" field is likely the same as a "street address" field.

Gerken says that in order to work for businesses, Mashups also had to be designed to allow administrators to monitor what happens to the company's data. For example, a popular mashup could strain a company's database system if it constantly requested data from the same place. The system comes with features that help administrators notice this sort of traffic and respond to it by, for instance, noticing what information is popular and storing it in lighter, more easily accessible ways, Gerken says. Another potential problem with Mashups, he says, is that confidential company data often gets mixed with insecure, publicly available data. The mashup is a derivative product, he says, that might have different access requirements than its sources do. Gerken says that IBM has been looking at this problem through a research project called Damia and will include features from the research in Mashups. But, he says, the features aren't finalized enough right now for him to elaborate on how, exactly, the product secures data at this point.

Niall Kennedy, a widget consultant in San Francisco, says, "There's always been a demand for mashups, but the problem has been with the tools available for the interface." He notes that before Google released tools for developers to use to make mashups with its map data, many developers reverse-engineered those tools in order to build their own applications. Lotus Mashups, Kennedy says, follows "a general trend of things getting adopted in the consumer space before getting a try in the enterprise."

IBM plans to release Lotus Mashups in the middle of this year.


Treating Muscular Dystrophy with Stem Cells

Making muscle: Embryonic stem cells from mice were used to grow healthy, functional muscle fibers. The image above shows a mix of mouse embryonic stem cells (dyed green) and dystrophin (dyed red), a protein that is vital for proper muscle function.
Credit: University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UT Southwestern) have used embryonic stem cells from mice to grow muscle cells. These same cells, injected into mice with a mild form of muscular dystrophy, formed healthy, functional muscle fibers at the site of deteriorating tissue. Scientists say that the research, while still in its early stages, could eventually lead to a cell-based therapy for patients with muscular dystrophy and other muscle-related diseases. The research was recently published in the online edition of Nature Medicine.

According to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, about 250,000 people in the United States have some form of the disease. The most well known, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, is caused by a genetic mutation that disrupts the formation of dystrophin, an important protein involved in the formation of muscle cells. In the absence of dystrophin, muscles are unable to regenerate, and they gradually weaken and waste away. Eventually, the deteriorated area is taken over by fat and connective tissue.

Rita Perlingeiro, assistant professor of developmental biology at UT Southwestern, says that embryonic stem cells may be the key to reversing muscular dystrophy's debilitating effects. The advantage lies in the cells' pluripotency--the ability to transform into any mature cell, be it bone, muscle, or cartilage. However, many researchers have found it difficult to direct every stem cell in a culture to form a specific type of cell. In lab experiments, scientists often end up with a mixture of cells that, when injected into an animal, form large clusters resembling a tumor.

So Perlingeiro and her team set two main goals: to find the right set of cues to convert embryonic stem cells into muscle cells, and to look for ways to isolate muscle cells from the rest of the culture medium, in order to inject a dose of pure muscle cells into a mouse model.

In normal embryologic development, stem cells turn into various tissue and bone, depending on a combination of molecular and genetic signals. In the case of muscle cells, past research has shown that the gene Pax-3 is essential in pointing stem cells down the path of muscle formation. With this knowledge, Perlingeiro and her team grew mouse-derived embryonic stem cells in a culture dish, then genetically manipulated the solution to overexpress Pax-3. They found that, compared with mixtures without Pax-3, a significant number of stem cells exposed to the activated gene formed muscle cells.

However, not all of the cells turned into muscle, and when the team injected the solution into a mouse with a mild form of muscular dystrophy, the mixture caused tumors to form. The team then focused on developing an identification process that would make muscle cells stand out from the rest of the solution. Once again, Perlingeiro looked to basic developmental research and found that, during normal muscle formation in the embryo, stem cells that become very early versions of muscle cells display certain surface molecules, or markers. The team repeated the first phase of its experiment, exposing embryonic stem cells to Pax-3, and looked for the telltale markers indicating muscle cells. The researchers then isolated these cells, creating a solution that consisted solely of muscle cells.

In preparation for injecting the new solution into a mouse model, the team first injected cardiotoxin into the mouse's leg. The effect inhibited the production of dystrophin, causing a weakening of the muscle--a condition resembling muscular dystrophy. Perlingeiro and her colleagues then injected the mouse with the muscle-cell solution. The team then took muscle biopsies and, after immuno-staining, found that, compared with mice that did not receive the solution, treated mice exhibited more dystrophin, indicating healthy muscle regeneration.

To confirm their results, the researchers ran both groups of mice on a treadmill; they found that the mice that received the solution outlasted the group that did not. Perlingeiro went a step further: after sacrificing both animal groups, she and her colleagues extracted every leg muscle, treated or untreated. They then placed each muscle in a bath and tested its strength by exposing it to an electrical impulse. The team found that the stronger contractions came from the muscles treated with the stem-cell-derived solution.

Perlingeiro says that the study's results are encouraging, as she envisions one day providing stem-cell-based therapy for people with muscular dystrophy and other muscle-related diseases. However, there will have to be more follow-up studies before the technique can be applied to humans.

"I have a long to-do list," says Perlingeiro. "We'd like to use the same technique on human embryonic stem cells."

Recently, researchers were able to turn human skin cells into embryonic stem cells, a technique that bypasses the thorny issues currently surrounding use of embryonic stem cells. Perlingeiro says that combining this technique with her muscle-deriving method may one day yield effective, efficient treatment of diseases such as muscular dystrophy.

"If we can reprogram skin cells to become pluripotent, and use Pax-3 to make muscle, then we would be able to make cells from the patient, and we wouldn't face ethical issues or problems of rejection," says Perlingeiro.

Paul Muhlrad, a research program coordinator for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, says that the study's results are a promising step toward effective treatment for muscle-related diseases. "These researchers present a nice proof of principle that embryonic stem cells can be turned into muscle-producing cells in the laboratory and used to deliver healthy muscle to people with Duchenne muscular dystrophy," says Muhlrad. "Of course, these experiments were done with mice. We've yet to see whether they will work in humans, but this study offers us much hope."


Sony LCD TV model range explained

With a number of different lines offering a vast array of LCD TV's with different specifications, it is easy to become bogged down in the detail of Sony's current crop of flat panels.

To make things a little easier for those of you who are considering buying a Sony LCD we have summarized the main differences between their current UK line up.

Essentially, differences between Sony's LCD TV's boil down to; Picture processing technology (Incarnation of their 'Bravia Engine' and any accompanying wizardry such as 100Hz processing); Screen resolution (Full HD or not); Connections (How many HDMI inputs etc).

Sony's flagship X3000/3500 series is equipped with the latest incarnation of their picture processing engine 'Bravia Engine Pro' along with 100Hz processing, Full HD (1920 x 1080) resolution, 10-bit panel, Live Colour Creation, 24Hz Tru Cinema and 3 HDMI inputs.

The one step down W3000 series retains the X3000/3500 features apart from 100Hz with picture processing being handled by the 'Bravia Engine EX'

The V3000 retains all of the features of the W3000 apart form losing an HDMI input and the 10-bit panel.

The D3000/3500 series is a bit of an anomaly in that the D3000 is equipped with 100Hz processing, 3 HDMI inputs and a 1366 x 768 resolution while the D3500 gains Full HD (1920 x 1080) resolution but loses 100Hz processing and sports 2 HDMI inputs. Both models feature the standard 'Bravia Engine' picture processing technology and retain 24Hz Tru cinema.

The T3500 panels feature the standard 'Bravia Engine', are all equipped with Full HD (1920 x 1080) resolution panels but lose 24hz Tru Cinema and come with 2 HDMI inputs.

The S3000 series has the same spec as the T3500 but gains an HDMI input (3) but loses Full HD (1920 x 1080) resolution.

The P3020 retains most of the T3500's features but loses a single HDMI input (2).

The U3000 series retains all of the P3020's features apart from the built in digital TV tuner (present on all other models).

X3000/3500 W3000 V3000 D3000/3500 T3500 S3000 P3020 U3000
Bravia Engine Bravia Engine Pro Bravia Engine EX Bravia Engine EX Bravia Engine Bravia Engine Bravia Engine Bravia Engine Bravia Engine
1920 x 1080 (3500)
HDMI 3 3 2 2 2 3 2 2
100Hz (3000)
10-bit panel
24Hz Tru Cinema
Live Colour
S-force surround sound