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Physicists persevere in quest for inexhaustible energy source

Physicists persevere in quest for inexhaustible energy source

MADISON - As gas prices soar and greenhouse gases continue to blanket the atmosphere, the need for a clean, safe and cheap source of energy has never seemed more pressing.
Scientists have long worked to meet that need, exploring alternative energy technologies such as wind and solar power. But, after decades of quiet progress, the spotlight is now on another potentially inexhaustible energy source.

Seven countries signed an agreement in Brussels last week (May 24) to launch construction of the multibillion dollar International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in southern France. The largest fusion-energy experiment ever conducted, ITER is the culmination of years of research by scores of scientists, and is poised to answer long-standing questions about the real-world viability of fusion energy. The United States, China, the European Union, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea and the Russian Federation are joint sponsors of the project, which will experimentally generate up to 500 million watts of energy.

An international collective of physicists and engineers is working to both complement and lend expertise directly to the ITER initiative - and researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are firmly placed among them.

"[ITER] is a major threshold that we've been waiting to get to for 20 years," says Raymond Fonck, a UW-Madison professor of engineering physics and the chief scientist of ITER's U.S. project office. "The project is the No. 1 priority in fusion research in the country and the world, and essentially takes us to a regime we've never been to before."

Fusion energy describes the energy that is released when atomic particles "fuse" together to form heavier particles. The process is fundamental to our universe, fueling both the sun and the stars. Here on Earth, physicists have tried to harness the energy potential of nuclear fusion by working with plasma, essentially a collection of particles, such as hydrogen nuclei, that carry electric charge. Because hydrogen can be easily extracted from seawater - a cheap and abundant resource - scientists have been tantalized by the prospect of plasma one day serving as an inexhaustible fuel.

But plasma has to be very, very hot - on the order of millions of degrees - for its gas particles to efficiently collide and release energy. "Basically, we're trying to make a sun here on Earth," says Stewart Prager, a UW-Madison physics professor, who also advises the U.S. government on national fusion-energy research. "But it turns out to be one of the most difficult scientific problems in the world."

One of the biggest hurdles, of course, is finding a container that can hold searing hot plasma without burning down itself. Scientists have been working around the problem by using invisible magnetic fields to hold the plasma in place, but they are still searching for the most efficient and optimal ways to do it. UW-Madison scientists are delving into pure physics and engineering research questions surrounding the issue. Their work both complements ITER's goals and, in a sense, looks one step beyond it.

Prager and his team, for instance, run the Madison Symmetric Torus (MST) - the largest fusion-energy experiment on campus. Shaped like a donut, the MST holds plasma heated to 10 million degrees. But instead of using a strong magnetic field to hold the plasma, Prager is exploring whether weaker - and therefore more economical - magnetic fields could accomplish the same task. The work has led to new insights about properties of plasma, and, in turn, has given rise to unique partnerships with astrophysicists, who are using the MST to explore basic questions about the plasma around black holes, galactic discs and other mysterious happenings of the solar system.

"We are now starting to appreciate and explore links between plasmas in the lab and plasmas in the universe, which is really interesting," Prager says.

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Law aims for broadband boost

Law aims for broadband boost
Phone companies that extend Internet service would qualify for credits
Posted: May 30, 2006

Phone companies that extend broadband Internet service to unserved rural areas will qualify for up to $7.5 million in tax credits under a bill signed into law by Gov. Jim Doyle on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 483, which was introduced by Sens. Ted Kanavas (R-Brookfield) and Robert Jauch (D-Poplar), aims to spur investment by telecom providers in areas that are less profitable because of the location or low population density.

The bill was hailed as a boon to development in rural areas by representatives of both AT&T and TDS Telecom Corp.

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Aquinas would have shunned stem cell work

Aquinas would have shunned stem cell work

Published Sunday, May 28, 2006

Contrary to the implication of former Sen. Thomas Eagleton in his commentary in the Tribune last Sunday, Saint Thomas Aquinas did not teach that the human embryo is something less than human.

It has become routine now, in the stem cell debate, to throw out assertions that certain writings of Saints Augustine and Aquinas are not consistent with the authentic Catholic teaching on the grave sinfulness of abortion and destruction of pre-nascent life.These saints taught the serious sinfulness of deliberate destruction of innocent life at any stage, and they believed that the child in the womb - they were not aware of zygotes and embryos, as such - was human from the start. (See Anne B. Gardiner’s article in the New Oxford Review, 2004.) In an on the subject published in the Jan. 17, 2003, National Catholic Reporter, bioethics expert and Professor Father Brian Johnstone said, "There was never any question (in Augustine and Aquinas) of whether terminating a pregnancy was sinful, but rather what kind of sin it was in the early stages - homicide or something else."

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Ethicists take center stage as biotech acquires new capabilities

Right and wrong become business questions
Ethicists take center stage as biotech acquires new capabilities
San Francisco Business Times - May 26, 2006
by Daniel S. Levine

Baseball's steroid scandal has focused on a question of punctuation. If Barry Bonds surpasses Hank Aaron on the all-time list of home run hitters, should the record be followed by an exclamation point or an asterisk?

But when legal scholars, ethicists, political scientists and others gather at Stanford University on May 26 to 28 for "Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights," their discussion will extend well beyond mundane steroids to include implantable computer chips to improve brain power, the use of bionic suits
that provide the wearer superhuman strength or the use of genetic modification to enhance human abilities.

The rapid pace of advancing biotechnology is raising complex questions about how technology should be used, who should profit from certain advances, how the benefits of these technologies should be distributed and how people should be protected from unintended effects and consequences.

Whether biotechnology companies want to listen or not, bioethics are increasingly shaping public opinion and public policy about emerging technologies and their implications.

"Bioethics are no longer restricted to the academy," said Christopher Scott, executive director of Stanford University's Center for Biomedical Ethics' Program in Stem Cells and Society. "The Bush presidency, more than any other, has shown that these individuals can actually influence public policy in a major way."

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Patent office overwhelmed by bio-inventions

Patent office overwhelmed by bio-inventions
New rules would limit follow-on additions to patent claims
San Francisco Business Times - May 26, 2006
by Eric Young

Increasing backlogs at the U.S. Patent Office are a longstanding frustration for biotech executives.

But they said a new set of proposals meant to reduce the waiting time will not provide much relief.

New rules under consideration would allow just one follow-on to a pending application. A subsequent application would have to explain why it was not submitted previously. Historically, the Patent Office has not placed limits on these filings.

A second, related proposal would limit an application to 10 claims, which are statements describing the heart of the invention. Many applications have traditionally had at least 20 claims.

Officials at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va., said the proposals are designed to cut the number of patent applications waiting to be reviewed by examiner. They agreed that the system must be fixed. Almost one-third of new applications in 2004 were for inventions that already had been reviewed by the Patent Office.

Some applications even had claims that patent examiners had previously rejected. While some resubmissions are necessary, patent officials said, the time it takes to address them detracts from the agency's ability to examine new patent applications.

The backlog, which has increased in recent years, frustrates biotech companies, which tend to be frequent filers of complex and lengthy applications.

The backlogs are an increasingly serious issue for biotechs. It can take patent examiners up to 15 months to begin reviewing an organic chemistry patent application. It can take more than three years to get a drug application to a patent examiner. Once a review has begun, the Patent Office can take several more years to grant a patent.

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Growing Glowing Nanowires to Light Up the Nanoworld

Growing Glowing Nanowires to Light Up the Nanoworld

NIST "grows" semiconductor nanowires that emit ultraviolet light as part of a project to make prototype nano-lasers and other devices and the measurement tools needed to characterize them. Electron micrograph shows the gallium nitride wires growing on a silicon substrate (color added for contrast.)

The nano world is getting brighter. Nanowires made of semiconductor materials are being used to make prototype lasers and light-emitting diodes with emission apertures roughly 100 nm in diameter—about 50 times narrower than conventional counterparts. Nanolight sources may have many applications, including “lab on a chip” devices for identifying chemicals and biological agents, scanning-probe microscope tips for imaging objects smaller than is currently possible, or ultra-precise tools for laser surgery and electronics manufacturing.

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are growing nanowires made of gallium nitride alloys and making prototype devices and nanometrology tools. The wires are grown under high vacuum by depositing atoms layer by layer on a silicon crystal. NIST is one of few laboratories capable of growing such semiconductor nanowires without using metal catalysts, an approach believed to enhance luminescence and flexibility in crystal design. The wires are generally between 30 and 500 nanometers (nm) in diameter and up to 12 micrometers long. When excited with a laser or electric current, the wires emit an intense glow in the ultraviolet or visible parts of the spectrum, depending on the alloy composition.

A paper in the May 22 issue of Applied Physics Letters* reports that individual nanowires grown at NIST produce sufficiently intense light to enable reliable room-temperature measurements of their important characteristics. For example, the peak wavelength of light emitted with electric field parallel to the long axis of a nanowire is shifted with respect to the peak wavelength emitted with electric field perpendicular to the wire. Such differences in emission are used to characterize the nanowire materials and also may be exploited to make sensors and other devices.

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Theoretical Blueprint for Invisibility Cloak Reported

Theoretical Blueprint for Invisibility Cloak Reported

Once devised using exotic artificial 'metamaterials,' the cloak will have numerous uses, from defense applications to wireless communications

Durham, N.C. -- Using a new design theory, researchers at Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering and Imperial College London have developed the blueprint for an invisibility cloak. Once devised, the cloak could have numerous uses, from defense applications to wireless communications, the researchers said.
Such a cloak could hide any object so well that observers would be totally unaware of its presence, according to the researchers. In principle, their invisibility cloak could be realized with exotic artificial composite materials called "metamaterials," they said.

"The cloak would act like you've opened up a hole in space," said David R. Smith, Augustine Scholar and professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke's Pratt School. "All light or other electromagnetic waves are swept around the area, guided by the metamaterial to emerge on the other side as if they had passed through an empty volume of space."

Electromagnetic waves would flow around an object hidden inside the metamaterial cloak just as water in a river flows virtually undisturbed around a smooth rock, Smith said.

The research team, which also includes David Schurig of Duke's Pratt School and John Pendry of Imperial College London, reported its findings on May 25, 2006, in Science Express, the online advance publication of the journal Science. The work was supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
First demonstrated by Smith and his colleagues in 2000, metamaterials can be made to interact with light or other electromagnetic waves in very precise ways. Although the theoretical cloak now reported has yet to be created, the Duke researchers are on their way to producing metamaterials with suitable properties, Smith said.

"There are several possible goals one may have for cloaking an object,” said Schurig, a research associate in electrical and computer engineering. "One goal would be to conceal an object from discovery by agents using probing or environmental radiation."

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Honda Says Brain Waves Control Robot

May 25, 7:44 AM EDT

Honda Says Brain Waves Control Robot

AP Business Writer

TOKYO (AP) -- In a step toward linking a person's thoughts to machines, Japanese automaker Honda said it has developed a technology that uses brain signals to control a robot's very simple moves.

In the future, the technology that Honda Motor Co. developed with ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories could be used to replace keyboards or cell phones, researchers said Wednesday. It also could have applications in helping people with spinal cord injuries, they said.

In a video demonstration in Tokyo, brain signals detected by a magnetic resonance imaging scanner were relayed to a robotic hand. A person in the MRI machine made a fist, spread his fingers and then made a V-sign. Several seconds later, a robotic hand mimicked the movements.

Further research would be needed to decode more complex movements.

The machine for reading the brain patterns also would have to become smaller and lighter - like a cap that people can wear as they move about, said ATR researcher Yukiyasu Kamitani.

What Honda calls a "brain-machine interface" is an improvement over past approaches, such as those that required surgery to connect wires. Other methods still had to train people in ways to send brain signals or weren't very accurate in reading the signals, Kamitani said.

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Doyle tells bishops he won't rethink stem cell support

Doyle tells bishops he won't rethink stem cell support

(Published Thursday, May 25, 2006 08:14:11 AM CDT)

By Ryan J. Foley
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. - Gov. Jim Doyle broke with Wisconsin's two most prominent Catholic bishops on Wednesday, bluntly telling them he would not rethink his strong support of embryonic stem cell research.

"While I appreciate your thoughts on this important issue, I also feel a responsibility to promote vital research which holds the potential to save countless lives and bring thousands of jobs to our state," Doyle, a Catholic, wrote in a letter to Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan and Madison Bishop Robert Morlino.

The Democratic governor wrote in response to the bishops' letter on Monday in which they criticized an executive order he signed last month setting aside $5 million to recruit companies doing stem cell research to Wisconsin.

Doyle has consistently championed research using embryonic stem cells, which was pioneered at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and has made the issue a central part of his re-election campaign. His challenger, U.S. Rep. Mark Green, R-Green Bay, supports sharp limits on the research.

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Sleeping pill wakes men in vegetative state

Sleeping pill wakes men in vegetative state

Sarah Boseley, health editor
Tuesday May 23, 2006
The Guardian

A drug commonly used as a sleeping pill appears to have had a miraculous effect on brain-damaged patients who have been in a permanent vegetative state for years, arousing them to the point where some are able to speak to their families, scientists report today.

The dramatic improvement occurs within 20 minutes of taking the drug, Zolpidem, and wears off after around four hours - at which point the patients return to their permanent vegetative state, according to a paper published in the medical journal NeuroRehabilitation.

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