Thursday, January 24, 2008


Energy companies pour millions into nanotechnology for oil and gas recovery.

Looking for pay dirt: Oil and gas companies look to nano-sized sensors to squeeze more hydrocarbons out of the ground.
Credit: The American Petroleum Institute

Could nanotechnology help squeeze more oil and gas out of the ground? That's the hope of a consortium of energy companies that is putting millions of dollars into the development of new micro- and nanosensor technologies.

The seven companies that make up the Advanced Energy Consortium (AEC), which includes Halliburton Energy Services, BP America, and ConocoPhilips, will put up $21 million in total to fund the research. The aim is to develop subsurface sensors that can be used to improve both the discovery and the recovery of hydrocarbons.

"It's been a long time coming," says Wade Adams, director of the Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University, in Houston, a technical partner to the consortium. "It's the first time the energy companies have got together to fund this kind of research, so it really is a big deal," he says.

Currently, even with the most advanced recovery techniques, only about 40 percent of the oil and gas in reservoirs can be recovered. The hope is that by injecting novel sensors into these reservoirs, it will be possible to more accurately map them in 3-D, increase the amount of fuel extracted, and minimize the environmental impact.

The financial investment--equivalent to $1 million per year from each company for three years--is "a very good sign," says Kris Pister, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, who has spent several years developing distributed sensors known as smart dust. It means that the energy companies now understand the potential of small-scale distributed-sensors technologies, he says.

"There is good reason to suspect that this technology could help," says Pister. Distributed wireless sensor technologies are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and now even have their own wireless standard: the highway addressable remote transducer, or HART.

Right now, the only way to find these reservoirs and gauge their precise size and capacity is through seismic means, or by simply drilling down. "But you don't get much information," says Adams. Surface and down-hole seismic techniques have limited resolution, while drilling can only take readings for the two-foot region surrounding the drill bore, he says.

Moreover, oil and gas reservoirs tend not to be formed in huge underground chasms, or wells, as many people think. Instead, the reservoirs are formed in porous rock formations, which act like high-pressure geological sponges, says Scott Tinker, director of the AEC, state geologist of Texas and a professor at the University of Texas, in Austin. "The pores are very small," he says. They can be anywhere from 10 microns to one micron in diameter. Because of their size, once the initial high pressure of the reservoir has been reduced by releasing some of the oil, this porosity can impede the flow of oil or gas through the rock formation. "It can take a lot of work to get the oil out of the rock," says Tinker.

What is needed is a means of mapping the pore structure and the voids between formations, he says, and to do this, researchers need sensors that are smaller than the pores. So the aim is to create micro- or nanosensors that can not only pass through the pores, but also form mesh networks to create detailed, 3-D maps of the structure of rock formations.

Another possibility with smaller-sized pores is to use magnetic nanoparticles to enhance aboveground sensing techniques, says Adams. By pumping the sensors into a rock formation, it could be possible to map the formation by detecting slight changes that the nanoparticles create in the earth's magnetic field.

The researchers believe that, in addition to locating and mapping oil and gas, nanoparticles might also be able to help recover the fuels. "The trouble is that the oil in the pores sticks to the walls," says Adams, even when high-pressure steam is blasted into the rock. The hope is that with the right nanoparticles, the researchers might be able to free the hydrocarbons from the rock.

Despite this potential, the energy industry hasn't shown much interest in nanoparticles until now. It was the high price of oil that caused its change of heart, Adams says. "All the big formations have been tapped, and most fields are in depletion. So cheap and easy oil is getting scarcer," he says.

Pister agrees. "A huge amount of money has been put into traditional extraction techniques," he says. But these have reached their limits in existing reservoirs. "They are about as tapped out as they can get."

However, there are lots of challenges ahead. Little is known about how nanoparticles will flow through porous rock. "And we have not generally designed nanoparticles for use at high temperatures and high pressures, nor for extreme chemical environments," says Adams. If these problems can be overcome, the payoff is likely to be great.

Synthesizing a Genome from Scratch

Scientists say the results represent a new stage in synthetic biology.

Synthetic genomes: Shown here is a circular piece of DNA synthesized from scratch--the first bacterial genome to be created this way.
Credit: J. Craig Venter Institute

In a technical tour de force, scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute, in Rockville, MD, have synthesized the genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium entirely from scratch. The feat is a stepping stone in creating precisely engineered microbial machines capable of generating biofuels and performing other useful functions.

"It really is groundbreaking that you can synthetically build a genome for a bacterium," says Chris Voigt, a synthetic biologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved in the project. "It's bigger by orders of magnitude than what's been done before."

Biologists creating genetically engineered organisms now routinely order pieces of DNA that are 10,000 to 20,000 base pairs long--big enough to incorporate the genes for a single metabolic pathway. That allows researchers to engineer microbes that can perform specific tasks, but the ability to synthesize entire genomes could grant a whole new level of control over biological design. (See "Tumor-KillingBacteria.")

In the new study, scientists ordered 101 DNA fragments, encompassing the entire Mycoplasma genome, from commercial DNA synthesis companies. These fragments were designed so that each overlapped its neighboring sequence by a small amount; these overlapping stretches stick together, thanks to the chemical properties of DNA. Researchers then bound the fragments piece by piece, eventually generating the full 582,970 base pair Mycoplasma sequence. The findings were published Thursday in the online edition of Science.

"We consider this a second and significant step in a three-step process of our attempt to create the first synthetic organism," says Craig Venter, president of the Venter Institute. Venter and his colleagues ultimately want to create a minimal genome--one with the least number of genes needed to sustain life. Pinpointing the minimal genome will both shed light on key cellular processes and provide a base for designing sophisticated synthetic organisms. "We ultimately want to design cells that could function in a robust fashion to make unique biofuels," says Venter.

The researchers' next step will be to show that the synthetic genome functions as it should. "We have the whole genome assembled in a tube, but we need to transplant it into the cell of a different species to show that it can reboot the cell," says Hamilton Smith, a Nobel laureate who oversaw the project at the Venter Institute. Last year, Smith's group transplanted the genome of one species of Mycoplasma into another, demonstrating that this type of transplant is possible. (See "Transplanting a Genome.")

While the synthesis of a genome might be impressive from a scientific perspective, it is not yet a practical way to engineer microbes to make biofuels. Instead, several companies, including Synthetic Genomics, a biotech company founded by Venter to engineer microbes for energy, are using more traditional metabolic engineering techniques to generate fuel-producing bacteria. (See "Building Better Biofuels.") "What we're doing with synthetic chromosomes will be the design process for the future," says Venter.

Others in the field are excited about that prospect. "Being able to synthesize genomes opens up a new world," says Voigt. "You can build things on the scale of the genome." For example, he says, scientists are now engineering bacteria to perform different steps in the conversion of biomass into ethanol--one strain to break down the biomass, another to make ethanol. But ideally, scientists could put those processes together to create one organism that could eat biomass and spit out fuel. (See "The Price of Biofuels.") "That would require genome-scale design," Voigt says.

He likens the current project, which required multiple steps to glue the fragments together, to the last computers designed before automated manufacturing and microfabrication techniques were introduced. Similar advances are needed for more ambitious genome-synthesis projects. "We still need to develop 'one step' genome construction methods in order to reduce the costs and turn time of genome construction," says Drew Endy, a synthetic biologist at MIT.

How to Build a Bionic Eye

Researchers have created an electronic contact lens that could be used as a display or a medical sensor.

The eyes have it: Researchers built a biocompatible contact lens with working LEDs, shown here. They hope that future versions of the lens can act as a biomedical sensor, or provide a display that is superimposed on a person’s field of view.
Credit: University of Washington

People don't think twice about wearing a Bluetooth headset to have conversations on their cell phones. Well, one day it might not be unusual to wear a contact lens that projects the phone's display directly onto the eye. Researchers at the University of Washington have taken an important first step toward building contact lenses that could do just that. By incorporating metal circuitry and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) into a polymer-based lens, they have created a functional circuit that is biologically compatible with the eye.

"If you look at the structure of a lens, it's just a simple polymer," says Babak Parviz, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington. A number of researchers are putting electronics into polymers to build flexible circuits or displays, for instance. "What we realized was, we can make a lot of functional devices that are really tiny, and they can be incorporated into a contact lens to do a lot more than just improve vision," Parviz says.

The team created the electronic lens with two main purposes in mind, he says. One of the goals was to see if it would be possible to build a heads-up display that could superimpose images onto a person's field of view, while still allowing her to see the real world. It would be a sort of augmented reality, explains Parviz. (See "TR10: Augmented Reality.") Soldiers could use the technology to see information about their environment, collected from sensors. Or civilians could use the electronic lens as a cell-phone display, to see who is calling and to watch videos during a commute, although these goals are long term, he says.

Another possible application is to use the lens as a sensor that could monitor chemical levels in the body and notify the user if they indicate signs of disease. Although Parviz won't go into details about the specific sensors that his team is making, he explains that many indicators of health can be monitored from the surface of the eye. The live cells on the eye, he says, are in indirect contact with blood serum, which contains biomarkers for diseases. If a sensor designed to pick up these biomarkers was built into a lens, then doctors could have a completely new, noninvasive tool for disease tests. In addition, the lens could continually monitor changes over time, providing a more complete view of a person's health.

Admittedly, these applications are years away. But Parviz and his team have laid the foundation for the work. In a paper presented at the International Conference of Micro Electric Mechanical Systems in Tucson, AZ, last week, the researchers describe how they created a lens with 16 working LEDs. The lens was made from a polyethylene tetraphthalate substrate--the kind of plastic used in beverage bottles--which was covered with metal wires for connecting the LEDs.

In addition to wires, the researchers used chemicals to carve out circular indentations in which the LEDs would be placed. Parviz notes that one challenge in building working electronics and opto-electronics into plastic is that these devices must be made with high heat that would melt the plastic. To get around this problem, his team fabricated LEDs on a separate substrate, ensuring that the devices could easily be removed and transferred onto the plastic lens.

Next, the researchers coated the fully assembled electronic lenses with polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), a biocompatible material. PMMA is also used to coat hard contact lenses, says Parviz, making his lenses more similar to hard contacts than the soft contacts worn by most people today. In the final step, the researchers molded the plastic into the shape of a lens.

When the team tested the lenses, the circuit was viable and the LEDs lit up. The researchers also placed the lens in a rabbit's eye for 20 minutes and found no adverse effects. However, they did not turn on the electronics while the lens was in the rabbit's eye. "I think we have to be careful about what happens to the eye when it turns on," says Parviz. "It's a functioning circuit. It could generate some heat. We need to take all the possible precautions to make sure this is safe." While it's true that the human body can withstand a range of temperatures, ultimately the circuits must be designed to consume ultralow amounts of power.

"The idea of building a circuit into a contact lens is interesting--it catches the attention," says George Whitesides, a professor of chemistry at Harvard who is not affiliated with the project. "It has been something that others have certainly talked about, but I, at least, have never seen any kind of implementation." Whitesides adds that this is an early step, and there is still the issue of providing power to the lens while it is in the eye. In addition, the University of Washington prototype does not have a clear function.

One of the next steps for the team will be to increase the number of LEDs on the lens to a couple hundred, in the hope of making a viable display. Right now, the LEDs are about 300 micrometers in diameter, which obviously limits the number of them that can be put on a lens. In addition, LEDs this size tend to break in the lens-shaping process. Parviz's team will try to shrink the LEDs to 30 micrometers in future experiments, which could enable the lens to display a few hundred pixels, he says.

LG Plasma line-up for 2008

Emphasizing slim design, advanced calibration options, hidden speakers and wireless connectivity, LG have announced 4 new plasma screen lines for 2008.

The flagship PG70 and PG60 series both feature a design which LG describes as being similar to a single pane of glass with a non-reflective internal cell structure aimed at reducing glare from ambient light. Both models are likely to be available with THX Display certification by the third-quarter of 2008. Both lines sport an impressive 4 HDMI inputs.

The PG70 with an optional transmission component, gives consumers the opportunity to eliminate cords with 802.11n wireless connectivity.

The step down PG30 series loses a single HDMI input while retaining the Full HD (1920 x 1080) resolution of the higher spec panels. Again, it comes with a slim design, but not the ultra slim 'pane of glass' style of the PG70/60 models.

The PG20 Series loses Full HD resolution, and contrast ratio is down to 15,000:1 form the 30,000:1 of the PG30.

All of LG's new plasmas feature their invisible speaker system which incorporates speaker actuators which hug the perimeter of the bezel, removing the need for traditional speaker drivers and their associated grills. The new system enables the new sleek look of these plasma, and according to LG produces a larger 'sweet spot' for sound.

The PG70/60/30 will be available in 50in and 60in sizes with the PG20 being offered in 42in and 50in varieties. No information as yet on UK prices and availability.

Pioneer PDP-4280XD Review

42in Plasma
Offers the best combination of standard and high definition performance of any flat panel.
HD Ready: yes
Resolution: 1,024 x 768
Rating: 96%


Alongside the Pioneer PDP-4280XD sits its identical (almost) sibling, the PDP-428XD. You will find both units retailing for around the same amount with the 4280XD having the advantage of a swivel stand included in the package, and the 428XD sporting a number of extra features.

These features include a USB port, picture-in-picture (Pip) functionality, sub-woofer output, ISF C3 (Custom Calibration Configuration) compatibility and Intelligent Brightness Control.


Pioneer plasmas are priced at a premium compared to their flat screen competitors, and this premium gets you more than just their legendary electronic wizardry. Some of the extra outlay has obviously been directed towards top notch materials, with the screen just oozing quality and style from every pour. The glossy black slim-framed PDP-4280XD will almost certainly bring out a green tinge to your friends and neighbours complexions.


By dubbing their 8th generation plasma screens Kuro ('Kuro' meaning 'black' in Japanese), Pioneer have firmly indicated in which direction their new range has been designed to excel.

Screen: 42in 16:9
Sound System: Nicam
Resolution: 1,024 x 768
Contrast Ratio: 16,000:1
Other Features: PURE Drive 2HD, Digital Noise Reduction (DNR), Direct Colour Filter III, MPEG NR (Noise Reduction). .
Sockets: 3 HDMI, 3 SCART, Component Video, Composite Video, S-Video, PC input.

Even with a whole host of new technological innovations, this new generation of screens will not be found wanting connectivity wise. The PDP-4280XD features 3 HDMI inputs, 3 scarts, Component Video, Composite Video and S-Video. Additionally, there is a CI slot and USB port.

Picture processing technology on the PDP-4280XD comes in the shape of Pioneer's PURE DRIVE 2HD which has been designed to eliminate video noise by minimising intermediate analogue-to-digital and digital-to-analogue conversions. Image processing has been optimised for Plasma screens, and to work with Pioneer's latest 8th generation screen.

PURE DRIVE 2HD is complemented by i-CLEAR Drive which employs multi bit digital video processors to increase the range of gradation levels, producing more subtle colour differences.

To ensure that picture quality on the PDP-4280XD remains consistent from the centre of the screen to its edges, Pioneer have once again deployed their 'Deep Waffle Rib' structure which has also been designed to reduce cross-pixel light and colour contamination.

The PDP-4280XD sports two built-in 17W speakers in a strip along the bottom edge of the screen with the benefit of Pioneer's SRS Surround Sound. SRS has been designed to synthesize "surround sound" from two channel (i.e. two speaker) systems.


Pioneer have rightly staked the reputation of their 8th generation plasma screens on black level performance. Without exception, the PDP-4280XD is head and shoulders above any other manufacturer in this area. What a good black level performance does for a plasma is to create a blank canvas upon which colours perform, and with the PDP-4280XD this canvas is almost flawless.

With an unrivalled black level performance, we expected colours on the PDP-4280XD to look good. In fact, colour saturation is class leading, with an unparalleled vibrancy which produced the most realistic skin tones we have seen on any flat panel. The depth and ranger of the colour palette on the PDP-4280XD in simply breathtaking.

High Definition (HD) viewing from Blu-ray or HD DVD is stunning, with a sharpness and level of detail that is at least as good as the best from other manufacturers.

Traditional plasma strengths, in particular their ability to handle motion fluidly produce one of the most accomplished Standard Definition (SD) performances we have seen on a 40in plus panel. This performance is most impressive with its ability to handle low quality Freeview sources, and while not flawless, the picture is easily as good as it gets this side of CRT in this respect.

The only negative aspect of the PDP-4280XD's performance concerns its ability to reproduce shadow detail. It is only because this unit is so competent in other areas (especially the black level performance) that this aspect of its operation was a little disappointing. Shadow detailing compares well with other plasma screens, but just doesn't live up to the incredible black levels present on this screen.

Sonically, the PDP-4280XD performs well, and the twin 17W speakers can handle even the most demanding of sound tracks without too much distortion. SRS creates different reactions from those who experience it, and in our opinion it doesn't add anything to the acoustics of the PDP-4280XD.


If you want to pull this Pioneer straight out of the box and have little or no interest in 'tinkering' with its performance then the PDP-4280XD will make an ideal high end choice.

The extra features offered by the PDP-428XD will appeal to the TV enthusiasts out there, not necessarily those of you who enjoyed poking a screwdriver into the back of your old CRT, but those of you interested in the technicalities of getting the very best picture from your plasma.

The Pioneer PDP-4280XD has given us all at HDTVorg the feeling that the days of CRT outperforming plasma with SD sources are numbered. The PDP-428XD is not quite there yet, but the difference is negligible, and with HD sources the PDP-4280XD in our opinion brings you the ultimate home viewing experience

LG 50PC55 Review

50in Plasma
There are better performing panels out there, but very few for the price.
HD Ready: yes
Resolution: 1366 x 768
Rating: 82%


LG have realised that style sells and have employed an Italian design studio to improve on the rather clunky look of LG's of the past.

With its piano black minimalist look complemented by a stand in the same style, the 50PC55 looks like it could actually claw back sales that were lost as a result of previous models rather 'clunky' style. The finishing slim silver strip which separates the screen frame from the full length horizontal speaker at the units base completes a rather chic piece of kit that won't look out of place even in the most fashion conscious of households.


Connectivity on the LG 42PC55 is adequate rather than outstanding, with 2 HDMI inputs along with 2 Scarts and the usual Composite video input, Component video input, S-video and PC input.

Screen: 50in 16:9
Sound System: Nicam
Resolution: 1366 x 768
Contrast Ratio: 15,000:1
Brightness: 1500cd/m2
Other Features: XD Image Processing Engine, MPEG Noise Reduction, Digital Comb Filter .
Sockets: 2 HDMI, 2 SCART, Component Video, Composite Video, PC input.

Picture processing technology on the 50PC55 comes in the shape of LG's proprietary XD engine. The XD Engine brings together a range of picture processing enhancements under the XD umbrella, and amongst other things focuses on improving the input signal quality.

The XD engine is complimented by MPEG Noise Reduction processing which has been designed to eliminate video noise once it hits the screen.

The 50PC55 is equipped with Clear Filter Pro, an advanced thin film filter designed to improve brightness, contrast, and more importantly to reduce screen reflections.

Also featuring a Digital Comb Filter, LG's 50PC55 separates TV signals into Brightness and Colour components, aiming to provide softer and cleaner images.


Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the LG 50PC55's performance considering its budget status is its black level ability. It can't match the benchmark 'Kuro' screens from Pioneer, but nevertheless puts in a wholly convincing performance that is the equal of most LCD TV's. Darker scenes look genuinely black, and only reveal a certain amount of greyness on closer inspection.

Disappointingly however some of the detailing on darker scenes lacked the subtlety possessed by more accomplished performers. Instead of a smooth colour transition, we were often faced with a 'graduated' transition.

Like its smaller brother the 42PC55, it is the High Definition (HD) performance of the 50PC55 that makes it such a serious contender for best budget home cinema screen. Pictures posses all the detail and sharpness you will ever need, and the depth of colour on such a reasonably priced piece of kit is a revelation.

Unfortunately, the 50PC55 is not quite as accomplished as we would have liked with fast motion sequences. Although the effect does not intrude to any great degree on the viewing experience, there is a noticeable amount of 'blocking' with faster action.

Inevitably, there is a fair amount of grain and video noise with Standard Definition (SD) sources. To a degree this is a reflection of the 50PC55's size, but it is also a reflection of the budget status of the kit.

The acoustic ability of the LG 50PC55 is nothing more and nothing less than adequate. Lack of bass is the main problem, and as the majority of buyers will probably be upgrading the sound capability on this unit, it won't be a problem.


There are better LCD's and Plasma's out there, but the LG 50PC55 offers a level of performance that is hard to beat for the price. An excellent choice for a budget home cinema system.